Jobs has lofty goal for opening FaceTime video standard

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs bit off a lot when he vowed to make FaceTime video calling an open industry software standard and that Apple will ship tens of millions of FaceTime connected devices in 2010.

Getting an open standard will mean not only talking to standards bodies, but also persuading some industry powerhouses to get behind those standards, including Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and Google.

All of those competitors are surely interested in providing video chat with mobile devices and could easily favor going in a separate direction from Apple. Developing one’s own technology outside of the mainstream industry standard is the very nature of how some technology companies compete—and win—today, including Apple.

“I hope Apple is successful in convincing Cisco, Microsoft, Google and others that FaceTime is a good standard for video telephony,” said Charles Golvin, a Forrester analyst in a blog praising the new iPhone 4, which will provide FaceTime video calling.

“I have no idea whether [FaceTime] is the BEST solution, but we have enough video telephony endpoints out there that it’s time to make video calling as easy and interoperable as voice,” Golvin continued. “[It’s} about time we realize at least part of the promise of the 1964 New York World’s Fair.” That was when and where AT&T introduced the Picturephone for video calls, a technology that never caught on partly because it required a critical mass of users to have them.

Jobs made his ambitious FaceTime promises deep into his Worldwide Developer’s Conference keynote Monday, where he announced the next version of Apple’s smartphone, the iPhone 4. Video of the entire two-hour keynote is available on the Apple site.

“This is amazing,” he said, referring to video calling and FaceTime. “I grew up in the U.S. … dreaming about video calling and it’s real now,” he said, referring to watching video calls made on TV shows with Star Trek’s Communicator device and in The Jetsons, a futuristic cartoon.

“Apple will ship tens of millions of FaceTime devices this calendar year, so there’s going to be a lot of people to talk to,” Jobs said, adding, “FaceTime is based on H264 video … and a bunch of alphabet soup acronyms. We’re going to the standards bodies tomorrow and making Facetime an open standard.”

Jobs’s comments suggest several things, including that FaceTime will run on many other Apple products, not just the iPhone. Several analysts said Jobs has set his sights on a lofty goal, but with Jobs and Apple, almost anything seems possible. Several analysts said Apple, at least, will add FaceTime and related hardware (including at least one camera) for video calls to the iPad. Adding FaceTime capabilities to the popular iPod touch media player, with some models including cameras, could bring Apple closer to Jobs’s goal.

“I think tens of millions is a stretch with the current product line,” said Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group. “You can assume iPhone 4s will sell easily a million a month for the next six months, but that only gets you to 6 to 8 million units.”

If Apple were to introduce a second-generation iPad with a front-facing camera, “that would get us there [to tens of millions] perhaps, but such a fast rev of that platform would be dangerous, although not unprecedented for Apple, for early adopters,” he said.

Howe said it’s unlikely that 10 million FaceTime-capable products will ship from Apple in 2010, and that tens of millions in 2011 is “more likely.”

Having many FaceTime clients to connect to is also critical for video calling to catch on, added analyst Kevin Burden of ABI Research.

Video chat users, especially in the enterprise, would want to have video calling capability not only to another iPhone 4, but also to other Apple devices and to phones from other manufacturers. These phones would need to have powerful processors and two cameras, one forward facing and one facing backward, he said.

Nokia makes several such video calling-capable phones with two cameras, as do other manufacturers. The use of these phones for video calling is more widespread in Asian countries where it is harder to text with so many characters needed in Chinese of Japanese, analysts said. But video chat in Nokia devices hasn’t been all that popular, Burden said.

When Jobs said the FaceTime software will work only iPhone 4 to iPhone 4, it seemed to contradict his additional statement that FaceTime will ship on tens of millions of Apple devices this year, which some analysts said could mean added products will soon interoperate with iPhone 4’s FaceTime.

One other possibility is that Apple could be counting on Cisco’s adding FaceTime and wireless functions to its Flip cameras, or Microsoft’s adding FaceTime to its Windows Phone Series 7 OS or Google adding it to a coming Android OS.

A Cisco spokesman, in an e-mail response, said: “Cisco believes in open standards as evidenced in our recent TIP [TelePresent Interoperability Protocol] announcement.” That announcement referred to Cisco’s willingness to interoperate between Cisco’s large room-sized telepresence systems and third-party systems, including those of recently acquired Tandberg.

A Google spokeswoman didn’t address FaceTime directly but said Google’s software is “built on top of open standards and platforms … We will continue to strive for openness in our communications platforms.” Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.

The willingness by Cisco and other large vendors to cooperate with Apple would be as important as Apple’s working through various standards bodies made up of small and large video and audio manufacturers, analysts added.

Asked to give odds on Apple’s chances of winning an industry open standard for FaceTime, Forrester’s Golvin said via e-mail: “I hate to hedge but it really depends on whom they’re able to enlist as supporters of their approach. If big players like Cisco, AT&T and others endorse Apple’s approach, then its chances are good. But if other players view it as favoring Apple, then it will remain in isolation.”

Golvin said with millions of video chat-capable smartphones and other devices deployed, “it’s… possible to realize the 1964 New York World’s Fair vision of video telephony, but only if video calling can be made as interoperable and seamless as voice calling.”

[Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld.]

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