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Will iPhone 4 usher in era of video calls?

John D. Sutter
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Video calling revolutionizes new iPhone 4
  • Latest iPhone features a front-facing camera, making it easier to place video calls
  • Skeptics think technical issues, cultural differences will make video calls a tough sell
  • Apple devotees say video calls will work because company is the best at simplifying things

San Francisco, California (CNN) -- Are the futuristic days of "The Jetsons" upon us?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs sure thinks so.

In a keynote address on Monday at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs announced that Apple is going to try to popularize mobile video calls in the U.S.

"I grew up here in the U.S. with 'The Jetsons' and 'Star Trek' and communicators, and just dreaming about this -- dreaming about video calling," he said. "And it's real now."

The reason Jobs is so excited about video calls now? The iPhone 4.

The just-announced phone, which goes on sale on June 24, is tricked out with new features that aim to make video calls easier to place.

A front-facing camera, for instance, captures your face while you make the call. Since you can still see the screen, you know if you're visible to friends or not. You can see the person you're calling at the same time. A new bit of software called "FaceTime" also lets you place a video call with a single click, straight from your contacts list. Older models of video calling required subscriptions and sever log-ins, which Jobs considers cumbersome.

Other phones, including the HTC Evo, which went on sale Friday, are touting video conferencing and front-facing cameras as breakaway features, too.

Still, it remains far from clear whether video calls will jump out of cartoons and into everyday America life.

For one thing, some technical barriers still remain.

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The iPhone 4 will only place video calls to another iPhone 4 -- not to any other type of phone, even another iPhone model, and not to a laptop or desktop computer.

Jobs says Apple will ship tens of millions of iPhone 4s this year, "so there's going to be a lot of people to talk to." But not everyone sees it that way. Robert Scoble, a well-known tech pundit and blogger, said that even if he gets an iPhone 4, which he's not entirely sure about, he doesn't think everyone in his family will have one.

That makes video conferencing less useful, he said.

Another issue is connectivity. The iPhone 4 only will make video calls over Wi-Fi networks, not over AT&T's cellular 3G network, which all of its users must subscribe to. That limits the number of places people can place video calls from.

"You're rarely in a nice Wi-Fi situation," especially if you travel frequently, Scoble said.

Other hurdles are cultural. In Europe and Asia, mobile video calls have been available for some time. But nobody uses them in France, said Julien Guillot, editor of the French technology news site, simply because they make less sense than text messages and voice calls. "It works, but you never use it," he said. "What's the point?"

Guillot also said it is "very disappointing" that Apple is only bringing video conferencing to Wi-Fi, since it's been available on 3G networks in France since 2005.

Ryan Block, founder of the gadget site, said it doesn't make sense for people to go walking around town holding their phones in front of their faces so they can video chat.

"When you go like that," he said, putting his phone out in front of his face, "you're not going to be able to do anything with your other hand."

The video calls may work for rare "intimate" moments between family members, but not for business calls and not on a daily basis, Block said. The front-facing camera on the iPhone 4 will be more useful for taking self-portraits and shooting YouTube videos, he said.

Others are more optimistic, saying that video conferencing has failed in the past because it's difficult. And since Apple tends to simplify things, the logic goes, the iPhone 4 will finally be the gadget to popularize video calls.

"It'll be one of those things that you didn't think you needed until Apple told you you needed it," said Joshua Topolsky, editor-in-chief of Engadget, a gadget blog.

"This is Apple at its finest," said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner.

CNN asked its @cnntech Twitter followers if they would make mobile video calls. Many said they would. @LNjones wrote: "I travel for work every other week. FaceTime would help me keep in touch w/ hubby without having to use Skype. Convenient!"

"Totally," wrote a user called @DVDsnapshot. "When the wife or myself are out of town traveling, what a great way to say hi to the kids!"

Perhaps the best argument for video calls came in a promotional video Apple played during Jobs' keynote address here. The video showed a number of scenarios where, ostensibly, video calling would be superior to a voice call or a text message. In one scene, a couple uses visual sign language to talk. In another, a woman who's getting an ultrasound video chats with a teary-eyed soldier in a far-away place. Another clip shows two teenage girls chattering away while showing each other new pairs of shoes.

"People will want to do this kind of stuff more and more," said Scoble, the blogger who's skeptical about the Wi-Fi connections of these calls.

Michael Gartenberg, a partner at the research firm Altimeter, said the iPhone 4's video call capability will be a selling point. "People are going to go 'Ahhh! I want that!'" he said.


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