How Apple Might Become the Ultimate Phone Company

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Apple, Google and Microsoft all want to be your phone company. But with both competitors’ communication offerings in disarray, Apple has an opportunity to offer the best, most elegant and integrated communication platform.

All they have to do is keep moving in their current direction, make a couple of key rumors come true and keep Steve Jobs’ promise about FaceTime.

What’s New?

Apple distributed to developers this week the OS X 10.9.2 beta, which includes FaceTime Audio.

FaceTime Audio is exactly what it sounds like — a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) feature that works more or less like a Skype call.

FaceTime Audio, of course, was introduced to iPhones with the iOS 7 release.

Apple’s total communications system now includes FaceTime Audio, FaceTime Video and Messages all of which will soon be supported by all iOS and OS X devices.

FaceTime Audio uses the AAC-ELD standard (Full-HD Voice), which excels at low-delay processing (ELD stands for Enhanced Low Delay) and provides CD-quality sound, providing the full audio range that a human can hear.

When FaceTime Audio is standard on desktop and laptop Macs, Apple users will have no reason to use Skype or Google’s Hangouts or Google Voice for phone calls.

The ultimate future home run, of course, is when Apple does and should auto-select how to make calls. In other words, you call someone by taping a face or phone number and your phone, tablet, laptop or desktop connects the call through FaceTime Voice or the phone system depending on whether the other person has FaceTime Voice and also depending on the speed of the data connection.

In fact, the biggest opportunity for Apple in communication generally is the gradual removal of the need for users to make any decisions or know anything before connecting with people.

Right now, Google’s communication platform is a muddled mess. The integration of Google+, Google+ Video Hangouts, SMS, Google Voice and Android are all half-assed integrations, which lead to confusion. A single contact is treated like two people inside the Hangouts mobile app. One version of the person can receive SMS and voice calls, and the other version can get Hangouts messaging and video calls.

Meanwhile, Google Contacts is a monstrously slow web site, and in any event, the permissions and defaults for Hangouts are confusing enough to result in most users getting hangout requests at odd hours from perfect strangers on the Google+ network.

People also get calls on their computers, and can’t find the controls to answer the calls. Are they on the Gmail tab? Do I have Google+ open? Where is that call coming from?

Google’s communications system is in disarray.

Skype, the longtime leader in both VoIP calling and video calling, is also problematic. Both Apple and Google are advancing their platforms qualitatively, while Skype appears to be regressing.

However, the one place where Skype rules without challenge is in the area of TV living room video calls.

Microsoft’s new Xbox One offers voice-controlled Skype integration, and it’s a thrill to use. If you get a Skype call while watching TV, for example, you say: “Xbox, answer.” The Xbox will pause what you’re watching and connect the video call using the Xbox’s 1080p camera. And then it gets interesting. The Xbox can actually identify humans in the room, and in software frame the shot smoothly and elegantly. For example, if there are two people on the couch, the Xbox will frame the Skype video so they’re perfectly framed. But if a third person sits down out of frame, the Xbox will re-frame the shot to show all three. You can also walk around in the room, and the shot will follow you.

Xbox One with Skype is awesome. But it ends at the edges of the living room. Skype is an increasingly unappealing communications option on phones and computers.

The Xbox/Skype integration suggests the future of mainstream communication, which Apple would truly excel at and which is one of the main reasons for Apple to create an iTV.

More to the point, Google’s poor user experience with Hangouts and Skype’s lack of appeal beyond Xbox is a huge opportunity for Apple to come in and create a super compelling whole-life communication system.

The Apple Phone Experience Should Be Seamless

When the world moved from landline phones to mobile phones, we shifted our perception about communication from calling a place” no matter who might be there, to calling a person, no matter which place they might be in.

The integration of communication types, as in FaceTime or Google’s Hangouts, with the further integration of voice assistants, like Siri or Google Now, combined with multiple sensors, such as Xbox’s weird cameras or Apple’s iBeacon, means that communication can be more seamless and location independent than ever.

And Apple should be able to pull this off better than competitors. Within a couple of years, here’s how Apple’s telephone system should work. You walk in the house and just say to the house: “Siri, call Janet.” Apple should be able to identify that Janet is sitting in front of her iMac, and so while connecting the call, Siri asks: “Would you like to connect through FaceTime Video on iTV?” You say yes as you sit down on the couch. The call is connected, and you chat for awhile. Then you realize that you forgot to pick up your dry cleaning. So you walk out the door. Janet gets a message on-screen saying the call is switching to FaceTime Audio, and your call now happens through the Bluetooth earpiece you’re wearing. Once you get into the car, the call is automatically transferred to the car’s built-in iOS in the Car system, using the car’s speaker and the dashboard microphone. You get your shirts, drive back home and when you plunk down on the couch again, the call returns to video after both parties are notified.

After you say good-bye and hang up, you tell the house again: “Siri, tell Janet it was great catching up,” and Siri sends Janet your message, which she receives on her iWatch.

That’s scenario, of course, is idealized. The best case (for Apple) is that both parties are dedicated Apple fans with all-Apple stuff.

Calls to people with varying degrees of or zero Apple products should connect as best they can anyway, and automatically. (And this is one of the reasons why Apple needs to keep Steve Jobs’ promise to make FaceTime interoperable with other video and audio systems.)

In any event, the integration of FaceTime Audio into the OS X 10.9.2 beta is another piece of what is surely Apple’s grand vision for elegant, seamless communication between any two people across devices and over multiple networks, including and especially the Internet.

(Image courtesy of ABC, Screen Gems, Worldvision Enterprises and Warner Bros.)

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  • Adrayven

    The thing that will, and continue to, hold this back is cross-platform abilities. Until that happens, I just don’t see it.

    To Apple’s credit, they were going to make FaceTime open.. but they got sued and lost.. now it cannot be open.. unless they find a different form of technology to do so.

  • Mike

    The VirnetX lawsuit was about a very specific technology. I don’t believe that no other technology is possible, or that it’s impossible for Apple to license this or other technology.

  • Freek Monsuur

    The only multi-platform communication Apple has ever done is support the email standard.

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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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