Mobile video chat slowly making a comeback

iPhone 4's FaceTime may help mobile video chat get back on track, but it will still take time before any surge in uptake is seen, analysts say.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor on

After a dismal debut almost a decade ago, mobile video chat looks set to finally gain traction, starting with iPhone 4's FaceTime, analysts say. But they add that an increase in market share and the number of people doing video calls on their mobiles will take time before video telephony on-the-go becomes mainstream.

Juniper Research stated in its report Oct. 12 that the number of smartphone users making video calls will reach 29 million worldwide by 2015. However, it also noted that the percentage of such users will still be below 10 percent in all markets by that time.

Another analyst firm, In-Stat, predicted in its report Oct. 27 that mobile video calling revenue will exceed US$1 billion by 2015, owing to the launch of mobile devices featuring front-facing cameras and preloaded mobile calling applications.

Both reports pointed to Apple's new iPhone 4 with its front-facing camera and in-built video call software, FaceTime, as a contributing factor for the rise in mobile video telephony.

Currently, video calls made through FaceTime on the iPhone 4 works over Wi-Fi networks and not 3G, and can be used only between iPhone 4 handsets.

In-Stat's vice president of mobile Internet, Frank Dickson, in the report singled out FaceTime as the starting point in the competition for mobile video telephony dominance. He argued that "Apple's capability to revolutionize the mobile video calling market is very real and no one in the ecosystem wants to be left behind". He told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that the iPhone 4 creates a market inflection point to spark the trend for mobile video chat, because its video calls cost nothing since it is through Wi-Fi.

In its study, Juniper Research also recognized Apple's FaceTime as an impetus, but it noted that this will not lead to mobile video chat becoming a mass-market technology in the next five years.

Foong King Yew, research director, Gartner, acknowledged that the iPhone 4 will "certainly generate market awareness and interest, which will help boost the adoption of mobile video calls". But he, too, pointed out that it will take some years for new patterns of mobile video interaction to penetrate the consumer market more widely.

Barriers to adoption
Windsor Holden, principal analyst at Juniper Research, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that while the interface developed by Apple for FaceTime is attractive and other vendors will indubitably follow suit to provide more appealing video call services, "that is not to say we will suddenly create a mass market for mobile video calling".

He expressed reservations as to how quickly mobile users will take to mobile video chat. "There is a fundamental difference between creating a market for apps--which Apple is doing--and reinventing the wheel, which is what video calling [is trying to do].

"Mobile video chat is not attempting to make an existing service more accessible, which mobile calling did for fixed calling. Rather, it is attempting to change the very way we call and engage with the person on the other side," he said.

Hence, while users of mobile video chat will increase, Holden believes it will not be to the extent that some are anticipating, because numerous barriers still remain that hinder mass adoption of mobile video telephony.

These barriers, he explained, include the social and psychological. He cited the example of an individual who, for whatever reason, may feel uncomfortable seeing or being seen by the other party during a video call. "We don't necessarily [want to] engage in long conversations when in the physical proximity of another individual by staring directly at them for the entire [length] of a conversation," he said, adding that in some cases it can even be perceived as unnecessarily intrusive or distracting.

Social norms aside, associate professor Michael S. Brown, who is from the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore Department of Computer Science, said in an e-mail that technical obstacles also limit the use of mobile video chat. He referred to examples such as image stabilization, bandwidth and phone design--particularly the lack of front-facing cameras meant for video calling.

However, he also felt that these challenges will be addressed in time, therefore boosting the trend of real-time video telephony. The associate professor commented that new software could be created in the future to tackle the problem of image stabilization. In addition, with bandwidth getting faster, cheaper and increasingly widespread, more people will rely heavily on mobile devices. This, Brown predicted, will consequently trigger demand for such devices to have front-facing cameras or which can be used both front and back (typically for photo-taking and video recording).

Brown referred to the iPhone 4's dual camera design and Apple's trendsetter status which could cause market competition to intensify. One such competitor is Taiwan manufacturer HTC, which recently launched its Android-powered HTC Evo 4G smartphone, which comes with a front-facing camera.

"Adding dedicated hardware [for video calling] to a device is a clear sign that the industry expects [the technology] to be used," Brown commented.

3G nothing new
Alex Chau, senior research manager of mobile and wireless technologies and services research practice group at IDC Asia-Pacific, pointed out that video calls are actually not new to the market and have been available since the first 3G (third-generation) wireless networks were rolled out in the early 2000s.

But this did not quite take off due to the lack of interoperability between telcos as well as privacy issues, he said, adding that consumers at the time also did not want to pay for the additional data charges incurred.

Chau, however, stated that network performance has improved tremendously since 3G was first launched, and cost is no longer a big inhibitor if a user is already subscribed to a mobile data plan. That said, mobile video calls will remain a niche service, he argued, adding that data charges may still put off some users who do not have a package with a high data limit. As for privacy, sometimes people "just want to keep their location [from where they're calling] private", he continued.

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