FaceTime WasteTime?

FaceTime users could potentially suck up valuable network bandwidth. But only if the technology is worth using.

With the germ of an idea for a piece floating around in my head for a discussion of the potential impact of FaceTime users on corporate network bandwidth I made a few phone calls this morning to some friends in the network management business.  When I broached the idea I was surprised with the response; "You've got a working iPhone 4? Let me call you and we'll check out FaceTime!"  More than one of them mentioned some personal horror stories about friends and colleagues having problems getting their IPhone activated, but four of the people I talked to really were interested in the FaceTime feature.

Well, who am I to pass up an opportunity to play with new technology, so after enabling FaceTime on my phone I scheduled a few calls.  And I must say that after no more than a few minutes, my fears that FaceTime would overwhelm corporate network bandwidth were quickly assuaged.

Let me put it this way; FaceTime appears to be currently at the level of bad 1st generation webcams.

It was, in some cases, pretty much unwatchable, and even in the best case, laggy and disconcerting.  In the best case scenario, the people watching me on the camera talked about the fewest problems with lag and lock ups. I was sitting at my desk, with the phone propped up on the desk, wearing a solid black t-shirt with a light solid color background behind me.  Basically, a static image with minimal changes from frame to frame; my callers reported occasional lagging and random image freezes, but that they were not too bad except for the periods of time when sound and video got out of sync.

From my perspective, however, the experience was execrable in almost every situation.  When talking with callers who were in motion the problems ranged from freezes with disconnects, to nausea inducing motion blur.  Even in the best cases, the images I was receiving were often choppy, with voice and image data out of sync.  Just to take my own Internet connection out of the loop, I tried repeating a few calls using different networks available to me, but the problems with the video transmission were completely repeatable. The only problem that I could not force to happen was the random freeze followed by dropped connection, which only happened twice in a dozen calls.

There is also a certain social awkwardness to video calls. I found that I was most comfortable with the phone sitting on my desk allowing me to control and maintain the angle at which the video was shot (I predict we will soon see gooseneck iPhone 4 docks for the desktop).  When I pointed out how awkward a caller who was hand holding the phone looked it made that particular problem worse, as the caller then looked very self-conscious as they tried to find a good way to hold the phone for the conversation. And one person I talked to even mentioned that if they had known they were going to be on TV this morning they would have shaved.

While FaceTime may be hailed as the first practical implementation of video calling, the reality is that the social conventions of a phone call don't include looking into a camera.  Many behaviors people unconsciously do while on the phone are not those that present them in the best light on video.