When Apple announced its Facetime two years ago, it looked like an appealing, easy-to-use feature that might finally make video chat mainstream and routine.
The best thing about Facetime has always been its seamless integration into Apple’s Phone and Contacts apps. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only good thing about it.
From the beginning, Facetime has been almost unusable because of limitations. Not small limitations, enormous ones. Here’s what I’m talking about.
You can’t use Facetime over mobile broadband. You need WiFi on both ends.
You can’t use Facetime to call someone who isn’t using an iPhone or Mac.
You can’t use Facetime to call more than one person at once as you could with iChat.
These limitations kill the majority of situations where most of us would want to use video chat.
So Facetime usage has been mostly relegated to use with a spouse or other close relative who we know has an Apple device and a WiFi connection.
Facetime is nearly useless for business. And it’s nearly useless for all but the most specific and rare circumstance among very close people who you know have Apple gear and WiFi.
This near uselessness was acceptable in 2010. The app was easy to use and smoothly functional, if you had the right connection and the right caller. Surely Apple would quickly add capabilities and start chipping away at all those massive limitations.
Besides, the alternatives to Facetime were few. It was still early days for video chat on a phone.
But early days are gone. Multiple superior alternatives exist. Yet, inexplicably, Facetime still has all the same limitations.
It won’t be until probably September that some users will be able to finally use Facetime over a cellular connection. But only if they upgrade to iOS 6. And for AT&T users, only if they have upgraded their plans.
The majority of US iPhone users, who are on AT&T, will need to upgrade to a new program called the Mobile Share plan. The Mobile Share plan has you choosing your own cap on data for each device on the plan — say, 1 GB of data for your tablet, 6 GB for your phone and 256 MB for your mother’s phone. Then, based on the caps you choose, they give you a price. Exceeding any of those caps enables AT&T to charge you extra.
Worse, a report posted on 9to5Mac says Facetime over 3G will be allowed by Apple only if the customer is using an iPhone 4S or iPad 3rd Generation. If true, that means people with an iPhone 4 or, say, an iPad 2 will be blocked from using the service.
Sprint has announced that it will not charge extra or require a plan change in order to use Facetime over 3G. Verizon has not announced its policy yet.
Meanwhile, the world has already passed Apple by. Several superior alternatives to Facetime now exist for Apple users. There is a smattering of free apps you can download right now that let you do Facetime-like chats over 3G and to people who are not using Apple hardware.
And then there’s Google+ Hangouts. Oh, boy, Hangouts is good.
Google+ Hangouts is one of those rare products that’s perfectly and provably superior to the Apple alternative in every significant way.
(The picture on top of this post should be what Facetime over 3G should look like on iPad. But no. That’s Google+ Hangouts on iPad.)
Every single person who uses Facetime can instead choose to use Hangouts. The reverse is not true. The majority of people who use Hangouts cannot use Facetime, because they’re not Apple users.
Hangouts doesn’t need WiFi. It works great over cellular connections. And it doesn’t require that AT&T users switch to a new Mobile Share Plan, nor does it require iOS 6. You can go download the Google+ app right now and use Hangouts on any connection.
You can do Hangouts video calls from an iPhone, Android Phone, iPad, Android tablet, a Mac, a PC and a Linux box. And calls initiated from any of these devices can connect to any other. You never need to know or care what hardware anyone else is using. Nor do you need to know their phone number or email address (you just circle them on Google+).
And Hangouts lets you talk to up to nine other people at once, and invite an unlimited number (for example, you can go “fishing” for available people by inviting, say, 100 of your family members and friends.)
Unlike Skype group calling, Hangouts is totally free, and the length of calls is totally unlimited. There is no way to pay for Hangouts.
And finally, unlike anything Apple has ever offered, Hangouts from a desktop Mac or PC lets you live-broadcast hangouts to an unlimited audience. The feature is called Hangouts On Air. You can broadcast theoretically to a million people or more. The live-streaming video can go viral as its happening on both Google+ and YouTube. And when it’s over, Google even posts it on YouTube for you automatically.
Google+ is clearly the best video conferencing solution out there. Worst of all for Apple, Google+ is at the top of a pretty long list of alternatives that are superior to Facetime.
Unless every single person you know uses Apple devices exclusively, Skype, Tango and ooVoo are all better than Facetime for iPhone users.
This is a bizarre state of affairs, when you consider that Apple has spent literally millions of dollars in specific TV ads that promote Facetime as the only feature in the ad. The Apple ads lovingly depict a nirvana of video calls, when the truth is that a handful of free alternatives are far better. This is like Microsoft advertising Windows by showing Internet Explorer exclusively, as if it’s a great feature and a reason to use Windows.
Someday, Apple may catch up to Google on video chat. But I think it’s too late. The video chat train has already left the station, and Apple is isn’t on board.