Why It’s Time for Apple to Open FaceTime

facetime

FaceTime just keeps getting better. The recent addition of audio calls in iOS 7 is great news, right? Well, sort of.

There are plenty of apps in the App Store that let you make calls over your data connection rather than through the carrier’s phone network.

FaceTime audio calls are great — something that Google+ Hangouts have had for a long time. (Hangouts actually lets you add a voice call to a group video Hangout.) They enable free international calls, for starters. The protocols underlying FaceTime enable high-quality audio calls.

More importantly, they give users one more reason to get into the FaceTime habit.

Unfortunately, FaceTime has a fatal flaw. It’s still — inexplicably — an exclusive phone system for Apple customers to call each other. What kind of phone system is that?

FaceTime has been around for three years now. When Steve Jobs announced it in the summer of 2010, he promised that Apple planned to make FaceTime an open standard so that other companies could make FaceTime-compatible apps and services. And that made perfect sense.

FaceTime is actually built on a variety of open standards. Unfortunately, Apple prevents other companies from implementing FaceTime support.

From the user’s perspective, FaceTime should work like iMessage. If Apple did it right, you’d be able to simply use it to make all your calls — video and audio. If the person you’re calling has FaceTime, great! If they don’t, that should be when the phone fails over to either the regular carrier’s phone system or another VoIP alternative. Or, it would connect to the other user’s FaceTime-compatible app.

iMessage is great because the user doesn’t even have to know or remember what kind of phone the other person has. It just works. If the connection is iMessage-to-iMessage, then Apple confers special benefits, not the least of which is monster privacy and security. If the connection is iMessage-to-SMS, that’s fine, too. It’s a regular text session. Either way, you can use iMessage every time without thinking about it.

This is the very feature that makes iMessage superior to Google’s Hangouts app. While Hangouts can be used on Android, iOS or on any PC running Chrome or Google+, it doesn’t interoperate with SMS. So if the other user isn’t using Hangouts, you can’t connect with them.

The same flaw exists with FaceTime. You have to think about what brand of phone the other person has before you make a call. Gimme a break.

If FaceTime doesn’t work like iMessage, at least it should work like Skype, where you can go user-to-user or user-to-nonuser. Apple could even charge for that service. I’d pay.

I think it’s reasonable for a giant technology company like Apple to keep features exclusive to their platform as a way to incentivize new customers and hang on to existing ones. For example, Apple’s Siri virtual assistant service is available exclusively to users of Apple’s products. You can’t download the official Android version of Siri, because it doesn’t exist.

But it doesn’t matter, because Siri users can still interact with non-users via Siri. For example, you can tell Siri to send a message or make a call or schedule a meeting with a non-user, and it works great.

FaceTime’s exclusivity is different. You can’t use FaceTime to call a non-FaceTime user. As such, it’s not a super compelling benefit to embrace Apple products. It’s nice. But nobody is going to place FaceTime on their short list of reasons why they choose Apple over alternatives.

I would also assume that FaceTime could be one of the “killer apps” for either Apple’s rumored upcoming TV or a future version of the Apple TV box or both. Video calls where you’re sitting comfortably in your living room and seeing your family and friends on the TV makes a lot of sense.

But if those calls can work only with other Apple users, the killer app itself is dead.

It also needs to be said that Apple’s move — as limited as it is — it another bit of overwhelming evidence that the wireless carrier model is obsolete. Instead of capping and throttling and punishing high-speed mobile broadband usage while simultaneously trying to threaten and negotiate and force and trick the usage of SMS and phone functionality, carriers need to do the opposite. They need to kill the phone functionality and increase the speed and bandwidth of wireless data connectivity by an order of magnitude.

As Apple is proving, and others have proved, a phone call is just another app.

What we really need is one app — not several depending on which phone each users has access to.

It’s time for Apple to live up to Steve Jobs’ promise and make FaceTime an open standard.

  • ints
  • Mike

    Really, I thought all journalist knew about this issues. Apple is being sued for a patent violation and until it’s settled they can’t open it up like Steve said they would. The latest in the patent case isn’t looking good for Apple.

  • Maxx1987

    I have to disagree with the idea to open up FaceTime. If Apple would open up FaceTime and other manufacturers implement them, or google implements it, why would a user still by an Apple device? I do think you’re right that people don’t have FaceTime on their wish list for choosing a device but I still think that people would think about it when choosing a phone if anybody else has an Apple device, like an iPad. When I look at my family they are all using FaceTime, not only because we all have Apple devices but also because third party apps like Skype have crappy connections and FaceTime works right out of the box. So I think it still is in Apples best interest to not open it up to third parties.

  • Glenn

    Patent trolls destroyed all possibility of making Facetime a viable open protocol. Apple had to make changes to the service to comply and the results make the application not work as well as it did initially. I doubt it will ever live up to its potential going forward.

  • sault

    Why it´s time you shut up. Better header.

  • x1Prince

    I must HIGHLY disagree! I’m a soldier in the Army, and I go on trips all over the country a lot during the year. My boyfriend has been a HUGE APPLE HATER, for years apparently. But when his android would always have problems with Skype I would pretty much say too bad you don’t have FaceTime, it’s much better. Well that is one major reason why he recently switched to the iPhone and is now eating his words.

  • rhassan

    totally disagree. Apple sell their products as a package of their own Hardware, Software and iCloud. To support their software / OS, they start to put stuffs built into the OS for free. i.e. FaceTime, iMessage, iCloud services, iWork (for new iOS devices), etc. Apple only promise to let FaceTime used on different platform other than iOS devices, which is Macs. We have to see it from business point of view, not from customer point of view.

    again, bad post. doesn’t make any sense at all.

  • stevenabouhaidar

    It is complete non sense to defend useless services like iMessage/Facetime/Siri… They all showed limited capabilities and functioning problems.

  • SulaymanF

    While I’d like interoperability, there are some downsides I am concerned about. Opening it means Apple can no longer control quality; a buggy android app that fails to connect will make people curse FaceTime rather than the implementation. Also, it could make the network TOO open; I’m already getting Skype spam messages, and that will happen more if the FaceTime standard gets too accessible.

  • _toddbloom

    Got to love a Googlebot criticising Apple for not being open with Facetime and not mention a thing about Hangouts, which is the same thing, and only works with Chrome and Google+.

  • Danathar

    One thing…Facetime Audio quality is FAR superior to hangouts audio. I made a Facetime Audio call to a user in japan and they sounded like they were standing next to me.

    Hangout Audio does not sound NEAR as good.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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