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The FaceTime open standard that never happened

Apple hasn't followed up on Steve Jobs' promise to developers, but third-party startups are offering their own tools to enable video chat features
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These were Steve Jobs' exact words, spoken almost three years ago at Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) 2010 Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco: "We're going to the standards bodies, starting tomorrow, and we're going to make FaceTime an open industry standard."

It was an announcement that surprised many in the audience, and was initially lost in the general excitement over the iPhone 4. However the idea of having the FaceTime video chat functionality available in more devices and applications represented a huge opportunity for the industry. Although a lot has happened since then--Jobs' passing, a number of new iPads, iPhones and iOS updates--it is a promise that seems unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon. Meanwhile, third-party companies are trying to use workarounds to offer FaceTime-like capabilities to developers, meaning video chat could soon become an important consideration in the design of apps and mobile games.

A few sources close to Apple told FierceDeveloper off the record that the company's engineers first heard of the plan to make FaceTime a standard when Jobs spoke at the conference, and that they were as taken aback as anyone else. According to Carl Howe, an analyst with the Yankee Group, it's possible some work has been going on behind the scenes.

Facetime"I think it's important to recognize here that standards aren't something a company can do unilaterally. A standard requires ratification by a standards body. However, submissions to standards bodies aren't necessarily public and are often protected by non-disclosure agreements," Howe said. "So the only thing that we know is that no FaceTime standard has been ratified; we can't definitively say that it was never submitted to a standards body."

In order to pass a standard, Apple could have to convince other vendors including Cisco, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). Some of those companies are already working with other video chat standards or proposing their own. Microsoft, for example, has submitted a proposal named CU-RTC-Web, while Google's WebRTC project is an implementation of the WebRTC standard run by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

"The good news here is that the fundamental technology is all based on agreed standards: H.264 and AAC for video and audio codecs, SIP for VoIP signaling, and a bunch of IETF standards for doing real-time and encrypted data streams," Howe said. "However, what we are missing is the set of specifications about how those blend together into a protocol called FaceTime."

Whether it's open and available or not, there's no question that FaceTime has changed expectations among smartphone users about how video chat should work and how it can improve the mobile experience, said Erik Lagerway, co-founder of HookFlash. The company, based in San Francisco, is offering its own SDK to allow video chat integration into iOS apps.

"The biggest part of that (FaceTime) is (Apple's) use of identity," Lagerway said. "All of these contacts that are lit up via FaceTime are via local contacts to the device. I don't have to go and sign up to Skype or a SIP address or whatever it is I needed to do, which is kind of the way things are done in the past."

HookFlash's Open Peer SDK leverages WebRTC and RTCWeb to offer peer-to-peer mobile voice, video and messaging on iOS. Lagerway said OpenPeer uses phone numbers, e-mail addresses, Facebook and LinkedIn to identify users.

Use cases for video chat

TokBox is already dealing with developers who are creating interesting ideas for video chat as part of the app experience. A significant one is a partnership with Major League Baseball, whereby players would go online and answer questions live from fans. But there are others:

Dating applications: It could be a lot better for those wary of meeting strangers based on a profile picture and some basic questions to be able to see each other first.

Prayer meetings: Religious groups may want to meet for Bible studies in between services. Video chat can enable that experience via mobile.

Gamer discussions: People who play video games on consoles are used to chatting via audio, but on a smartphone video chat could help relay information or create a more communal experience.

Another San Francisco-based startup, TokBox, is helping developers get closer to FaceTime functionality by offering plugins for Appcelerator's Titanium and Adobe's PhoneGap that allow video chat using common languages such as HTML, JavaScript or CSS. Ian Small, TokBox's CEO, said developers should be thinking about video chat as a feature rather than a standalone app. That's because while early use of video as a communications tool ranged from expensive corporate videoconferencing or tools like Skype that initially replicated traditional voice calling, video chatting in the future will be about getting things done.

"There is a significant number of apps, either on the Web or on a mobile device, where apps could be augmented with face-to-face video," he said. "FaceTime has turned out to be providing a Skype alternative on the Apple family of platforms. One of the things that is sad about what Apple has chosen to do is that, in making FaceTime successful, Apple takes advantage of the H.264 codec phones have in their hardware, and this is not something they make available to developers. Apple has chosen to keep that part of their platform closed."

Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, thinks things will likely stay that way, given Apple's track record. "The main benefit of FaceTime to Apple is their customers have yet another reason to remain in the Apple ecosystem," he said. "They're very controlled, or let's say measured, in providing access to these capabilities. I don't see Apple extending that out in a meaningful way going forward."

Yankee Group's Carl Howe agrees, and suggests that those developers who still hold out hope for a FaceTime standard should be careful about what they're wishing for.

"It could very well be that most companies now consider Apple to have quite enough power, and may simply not be interested in giving it more power in the VoIP and mobile videoconferencing markets," he said. "The other point to be made is that Jobs saying that it would become an open standard does not imply that it will necessarily be a free standard or even a 'fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory licensed' standard. Said another way, Apple may be requiring developers to pay for access to the standard, and developers may simply not be willing to pay to receive the specs."

Small isn't so sure. "I think at some point Apple is going to have to revisit this," he said. "In the meantime, (keeping it proprietary) is one of the ways they're trying to keep an advantage for FaceTime."