Apple launched FaceTime with iPhone 4 and iOS a few months ago. Yesterday they announced FaceTime for Mac (beta). Both announcements got huge press coverage in line with other Apple products. But is FaceTime really something that new or that innovative. Let’s take a look.
SIP with proprietary magic
Soon after FaceTime for iOS was released a few network dumps of FT calls were published online. What is clear from those dumps is that Apple built its own, proprietary peer discovery mechanism (which they promised to open, eventually). The peer discovery is made via encrypted requests to Apple’s servers.
The calls are just plain, usual, vanilla SIP with a twist. The codecs used for media are not standard video telephony codecs. While the video codec might even fit in the “standard” pack, the audio codec is something new for the telephony world. This implies that FaceTime can not be easily integrated with standard video call equipment owned by mobile operators and common mortals. That equipment usually uses (or used to use) h263 as the video codec and AMR-NB as the audio codec of choice in SIP that was later transcoded to H.323 H.324M in order to get it on a 3G video phone. This technology has some really funny limitations, with its culmination in a total of 64 kb/s for both audio and video (fu** yeah!).
No wonder FaceTime’s quality is much better – it uses a newer codec + has much more available bandwidth for audio & video streaming.
The funniest part of this story is that both mobile operators and vendors in this space knew this was possible, but there was so much legacy equipment (deployed a bit to early) in place that it did not make sense to change everything all over again.
FaceTime is great on the UI level
Compare that to a video call interface on a Nokia or Motorola 3G video call enabled phone and you will see what I am talking about. The same applies to FT for Mac – take your time, test some SIP clients that let you make video calls and prepare to be surprised by the poor interface design.
Will FaceTime be mainstream?
Well, I believe that video calls have their own spot under the sun, but I can hardly believe that all calls will be video calls some day.
As Tomi puts it – one media does not kill the other, they complement each other to bring satisfaction to users. Video calling on Skype is huge and I am sure Mac to Mac FaceTime calls will thrive, but I can’t really see people doing all that video calling to mobile devices where people are on the move and are not “ready” for a visual contact with the caller.
FaceTime is nothing new in terms of underlying technology. SIP has been around forever (originally designed in 1996). H264 for video and AAC for audio streaming are nothing new, but the combination of those technologies was not in line with any standards, but it produced much better results than its predecessors with h263 and AMR-NB. That is the innovation Apple made – fu** the standards and make something that works better than those “standard” compliant competitors.
Secondly, Apple really added a great layer of design knowledge on top of that technology in order to simplify the experience for users and personally I believe there is room for further improvement, specially when this kind of experience will be available in the browser (not in a closed App Store), linked to existing services.
Note: this post was written on a Mac in a web browser.