Facetime Over 3G: Too Little, Too Late!



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.


  • Solowalker

    An ad for Google+ Hangouts. How come I don’t see “Cross posted from Cult of Android” anywhere?

    I’m sure Hangouts have their place, but that’s like saying Party Lines have their place. FaceTime is a phone call with video. Seriously, how often do you do 3 way calling on you phone? No that often? Didn’t think so. So how often are you going to want to do 3+ way video calling? Perhaps a little more often, but still not anywhere near as often as you would do a video call with just one person.

    I use FaceTime regularly to talk to the wife and kids, as you mentioned in your article. My kids call their uncles with it. Of course they all have iPhones and Macs and we know it. But let’s face it, if you don’t know a person well enough to know what kind of phone they have, do you really want to be video chatting with them? Sounds like that would be with someone you don’t really know and haven’t met in person. I’m not video chatting with I don’t know.

    It might be nice to have extra features added to FaceTime as an option, but these are options most people would never use or even think about (aside from 3G calls) so they’re definitely NOT deal killers. And those who need more can always use something else, which is what Apple’s offerings are all about–simple, easy-to-use, good enough for the vast vast majority of people who want buy into Apple’s ecosystem.

  • minimalist1969

    You had a good point about the ridiculous limitations Facetime put on its users… until you started gushing about Google+ hangouts for the whole last third of the post. Really?

    Facetime may be lame for its restrictions but at least I know dozens of people who COULD use it to chat with me it we wanted to. I can count the number of people I know in real life who use Google+ on one hand. Real people outside the tech bubble simply don’t use Google+. For better or worse they use Facebook.

  • bking2911

    If Google or Skype are able to use video chat through 3G wireless why ristrict iPhone users to do the exact same thing. I agree face time has its limitations but why won’t the carriers just let us use the feature without charging us extra, or having us change our mobile plans in order to use it.

  • technochick

    I thoroughly disagree with your opinions about FaceTime

    As for the rest, how much did Google pay you for that ad.

  • Mike Elgan

    Solowalker and minimalist1969: If you haven’t tried Hangouts on the new Google+ app for iOS, I’m sorry, but your arguments are invalid.

    The fact is that the list of things Facetime cannot do is identical to the list of things that Google+ Hangouts can do.

    And it’s literally the only app/service that can do all those things.

    What do you want me to do, lie?

    Try the app, then come back with a straight face and tell me it’s not the greatest video chat app ever created.

  • jammun


  • thegraphicmac

    I feel bad for Apple. The carriers (AT&T in this case) are punishing iPhone users by not allowing Facetime over 3G simply because their phone is the most popular, and statistically those users suck up more data than any other phone user.

    As already mentioned, they don’t restrict Skype, or Google, or any other type of video chat user… only iPhone users. But Apple gets the black eye.

    Don’t even get me started on these ridiculous “charge you twice” sharing plans.

  • cselin

    Google+ may have superior features, but your argument for it being more prevalent is bunk. You know for sure that anyone with an iDevice has FaceTime, while its more than likely most of the people you know haven’t installed google+

  • Jdsonice

    So why not use Skype?

    I use it all the time over 3G without any issues. It works great and it runs well over 3G.

    Since I am one of the lucky ones to have unlimited data from AT&T there is that extra sweet bonus of shoving one up AT&T’s ass.

    That one fact alone makes me happy that I am screwing AT&T which is one of the worst companies around.

  • LeoraulT

    Facetime still is and it will continue to be a viable alternative for non-geek people. The author needs to step out of this circle and see the big picture. At least of what it could be. Carries might still be the biggest constraint.

  • Jamie Clay

    We’ve been very disappointed in real world use of Facetime, it was so flaky we came up with a term “Facelock” for when it would freeze for an sporadic amount of time then free up.

    More often than not, our conversation would be about how bad using Facetime was – then we ‘discovered’ Skype video and then Hangouts – and never used Facetime again.

    There is no way Facetime 3G will get use by us.

  • The_Truth_Hurts

    … And that is the “problem” is Apple.

    To have the “best experience”, you will have to have all Apple products, software, apps, etc… Not only you, but everybody else you are in contact with.

    Facetime? It’s a nice video chatting software. Only problem is, if your friend has an Android/windows/something non-apple, forget about Facetime. You’ll have to download Skype or some Google video chat software or something else.

    iWork? A bit better, but the problem is, you will have to “risk” formatting issues, etc…, if you are sending to someone who has Office or another Office-like program.

    iCloud? Nice, but you don’t have the ability to do a lot of stuff like Skydrive, Google drive, etc. where you can work, share, edit documents with other.

    And where apple is going, the “integration” of their stuff is getting “pushed”. Thus, if you don’t want to use their apps, services, etc.. a lot of these new features added into iOS/OS X are “useless”.

    Microsoft/Google on the otherhand? Are seeming to make their stuff more multi-platform compared to Apple. Thus, about anybody would be able to use Microsoft/Google stuff, while only a “limited selection” can use Apple stuff (apple users only).

    The problem lies with Apple. Apple makes their $$$ by hardware sales. Yes, sort of software, but it’s the hardware where they make their huge profits. If they start giving non-Apple users the software choice, it sort of “decreases” the want/need/desire for Apple products. why get an iPhone if iWork, iLife, facetime, etc… works on your android, windows phone no problem…?

    Basically, the gate is getting higher and the garden is getting smaller. Apple is trying to lure people in. Get all of these “amazing” stuff with your Apple product! The only thing is, they (really) only work if you are heavily invested in Apple’s stuff or if all of your friends have apple products.

    Yes, I have seen an increase of Apple products around me. But what I have noticed in the last year more so than the years before is people “leaving” Apple. They have an iPad, iPhone, iPod or Mac, or All the above or a combination. They may have not left Apple yet, but their current apple product (or products) will be the last apple product (or products) they will buy. Why? Primarily because stuff like above. They have this “killer” thing that is pretty much useless. They may have facetime, but never use it because people around them don’t have Apple products. They may have iCloud integration, etc… but never have a use for it because they have a windows phone and an android tablet (Mac computer). Whatever it may be, they see themselves using the Apple specific software less and less because not everyone has Apple products. And with apple trying to add more specific apple stuff only, they see no need to get an Apple product any more, especially when that Android/Windows device will allow them to do stuff with Apple users without the need of having to download more software and have all that Android/windows software not being used.

  • Solowalker

    Solowalker and minimalist1969: If you haven’t tried Hangouts on the new Google+ app for iOS, I’m sorry, but your arguments are invalid.

    The fact is that the list of things Facetime cannot do is identical to the list of things that Google+ Hangouts can do.

    Saying that FaceTime and Hangouts are for different audiences is invalid? Saying FaceTime is a simple, integrated, easy-to-use service that you don’t even have to sign-up for that does more than 90% of what more than 90% of people would want it for and that Google+ may have its place but it’s more of a niche service that does the other 10% that the other 10% of people may need is invalid? I don’t think so.

    Comparing FaceTime to Goole+ Hangouts is like comparing a Mac to a Hackintosh, Pages to InDesign, Aperture to Photoshop+Bridge, iMovie to Premiere, iOS to Android. If FaceTime is invalid then so are iWork, iLife, or pre-built Macs. They all exist to be easy, good enough and then some that people are more than willing to use due to their simplicity and the fact that they “just work,” even if they may have some “limitations.”

    Just because FaceTime may not be what you’re looking for doesn’t mean it’s not enough for millions of other people, nor that given the choice between the two many would choose FaceTime over Hangouts.

  • alex503

    Or if you have a jailbrokene device than you can download 3G unristricter from cydia and use FaceTime over 3G. Not only can you unrestrict FaceTime over 3G but you can unristrict any other app on our device that has a 3G restriction such as when you try to download a large app in the app store. You just check off apple store app in the settings and than you can download any large apps over 3G. Ya it sucks that apple and AT&T have done this but you just go around it them if you can. By the way FaceTime over 3G is a better experincec than skype in everyway, especially the picture quality.

  • Seraphiel

    “You can’t use Facetime to call someone who isn’t using an iPhone or Mac.”

    I’ve been writing that from the second Facetime launched.. “It is going to be unusable if they don’t release a windows client as well” Quicktime is on windows, Safari is on windows, would have had killed Apple to release a windows client for FaceTime for the less fortunate PC-users in the world? Facetime was dead on arrival and with no Apple Facetime Windows client in sight I see Apple silently killing the whole thing in the near feature.

  • Ollie_McMillan

    I liked the satirical IE reference with Windows. Made me laugh.

  • Gkpm

    Biggest pile of dogcrap I’ve read on Cult of Mac. Had to check if I wasn’t reading Cult of Google by mistake.

    I use Facetime over 3G all the time with my wife on iOS6 beta. It’s one of the best things.
    You know why it’s great? Nothing to sign up for, nothing to sign on. It’s there all the time and it works.

  • Sandman619

    So alternatives quickly came to market, now Apple abandons FaceTime to spend scare resources on other projects

  • Manuelodi1

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  • concentrateddon

    The AT&T mobile share plans don’t require multiple people; they want at least two devices. So, your iPhone and a hotspot, for example. A minor nit to be sure – but an important detail to get right if you intend to write pieces like this.

  • concentrateddon

    The AT&T mobile share plans don’t require multiple people; they want at least two devices. So, your iPhone and a hotspot, for example. A minor nit to be sure – but an important detail to get right if you intend to write pieces like this.

  • CharilaosMulder

    Always seeking limitations huh… But then statistically iPhone users actually do use most features. I have never seen anyone use Hangouts. And I don’t want to sign up for Googles social network to do some videocalling.

  • Thomas Walker

    There are 5 females in that supposed real photo of people using Google+ Hangouts, that’s proof alone that the photo is a fake. We all know Google+ is heavily male, technology professionals, and niche market types. For the millions of us who have families and want to say hello to our children while on the road, we have the family plans, and the apple devices and it’s as easy as making a phone call. FaceTime isn’t meant to be a video chat service, it’s meant to bea way to connect to the people you love. That’s probably difficult for google+ types to understand since they are heavily, male, single, and incapable of understanding that tech is a tool for 99% of people and not a way of life.

  • hanhothi

    We all use Skype! How interesting that once Microsoft bought the company, the problem with using a BlueTooth headset was suddenly solved. Well done Microsoft, thanks!

  • nthnm

    I’ve used FaceTime three or four times. Twice to show my mom my new apartment when I moved and once or twice to help her find the button to open her optical drive on her tower (lol). None of my friends with iOS devices use FaceTime either.

  • zviivz

    Seriously … how many people out there are using Google+ and Google Hangouts? Most of the folks I know are using Facebook. Google+ – just a handful. In fact I’ve only heard about Google Hangout with video chat recently, after months of using Facetime. Anyway, who cares about broadcasting your chat to the entire world!

    Quoting from the author and then with a little twist, it seems the statement is the same in anyway you see it.

    “Unless every single person you know uses Skype, Tango and ooVoo (?? what the heck is that?) AND Google+ exclusively, Facetime is still better than other users.”

    I don’t know about the quality of Google hangout video chat since I’ve never used them. I assumed they are similar. But i do know that Skype video is not as good as Facetime, especially when that person is like ten thousands miles away. I’ve never had any problem with Facetime.

    Facetime over 3G or 4G LTE is never Apple’s fault. The carriers are to be blame for this. They are the one who didn’t invest enough in their networks and then start to blame users for their fault. Instead of investing in research and improving the networks, the money goes to feed their executives with fat pay checks and bonuses.

  • Manuelodi1

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  • Paragraphics

    Those of us who have loved and used Apple products for years, but still retain the ability to think clearly, will see that this article makes a good point.

    FaceTime *is* severely limited, and it sounds like Google+Hangouts could be a major improvement.

    Rather than shut my eyes and get angry with someone who suggests an alternative, I’m going to try Google+Hangouts and see how it works. Considering the fact that most of my so-called friends and business associates are not Apple users, I’m guessing that this new video-phone option is going to be a good thing for me.

    Meanwhile those of you who think there is nothing outside the Applesphere, and refuse to even consider alternatives, prepare to see yourselves suffering more and more as Apple continues to sink without the leadership of Steve Jobs.

  • krulwich

    How much is any video calling system other than Skype used by non-early-adopters?

    Tech providers have been pushing video calling for decades, and adoption and user interest is effectively 0%. 3G video call usage is negligable. The only system used by the mass market is Skype.

    The reality is that video calling is for specific use, and not for mainstream communication. That’s why integration into phone calls or contacts is irrelevent. It’s also why Apple’s attempt to guarentee quality (by restricting to Wi-Fi) misses the point – early adopters are willing to accept quality variation, and non-early adopters are only using it for a few specific uses.

  • The_Truth_Hurts


    What if the people you know DON’T have an iDevice? Suddenly, Facetime is USELESS!!!
    Skype? If they got a Facebook account, skype account, hotmail account (now), you’ll be able to Skype them. Right there, the amount of people you can talk to, is out of the roof.
    Google+ Hangouts? Google has video chatting built into their services. So if they don’t have a Google+ account, and just a google account, you can still talk to them.

    Facetime? Facetime ONLY works if you have an iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, newest generation iPod touch, iPad 2, iPad 3, Macs with cameras. The thing with Macs, if you aren’t on Lion or higher, you’ll STILL have to download the facetime “app”, that really only works on Snow leopard, and costs (Yes, $1 I know).

    Have an older iPhone? Out of the loop. Don’t have the newest iPod? Out of the loop. Have a 1st generation iPad? Out of the loop. Don’t have a Mac with Lion? well, you’ll have to download Facetime, just like Skype, Google’s stuff, any other stuff. Have something older than Snow leopard? Out of the luck.

    Then you’ll realize that the group is small.
    Google’s? You’ll find out that the group is far larger you can reach.
    Microsoft’s? You’ll find out that the group is HUGE. Literally, anything with a front facing camera has the capability of running Skype. ANY DEVICE (literally) WITH A FRONT FACING CAM HAS THE CAPABILITY OF RUNNING SKYPE!!!

    Oh, besides that, you can use skype to text, send calls, chat with multiple people and more. Can you do that all with facetime? NO.

    And with Windows 8, Skype will be pushed even more.

    What do you want to use? Facetime, where you’ll only have the capability of reaching maybe 300 million people (if that), or Skype, that has the capability of reaching 1 billion people, if not more…?

    With Facetime, you’ll have to download (still) Skype or Google’s video service to access more people, well until Apple opens Facetime. But that won’t happen because that is one less reason to not buy an Apple device.

  • higuetari

    I totally agree with you right now! You’ve nailed it!

  • Alfred2612

    FaceTime … does more than 90% of what more than 90% of people would want it for

    Not for me. One of the things I “want it for” is to talk to people. Of my 30 regular and semi-regular social contacts, I can only use Facetime with 2 of them. That’s, uh, 6%.

    So it’s useless for 94% of my online conversations.

    On the other hand, 100% of my contacts have and use Skype.

  • Passport88

    Paragraphics and TruthHurts are right on point. Why is it that some of you mac users are sensitive to apple criticism? It’s just a company, not your mother. Chances are that the criticism is coming from other mac users. Is there no room for a rational discussion?

  • NeverEndsWell

    I completely disagree. Data caps, fear of overage penalties and restrictions like you’ve mentioned have taken the wind out of most sails when it comes to video communication via cellular over the last few years. The disenfranchised have mainly given up and resigned themselves mainly to text and email while awaiting a more friendly environment for consumers to communicate by video over cellular. In the meantime, no clear winner will be decided.

    Anecdotally, while all of my friends have smartphones and the ability to videoconference, almost nobody does. The few exception are my friends with kids who use Facetime to communicate with their children while at work (the parents have iPhones while the kids use either an iPhone touch or MacBook). However, I’d still say they are only about 15% to 20% of my friends. When I ask others why they seem to avoid video conferencing, the main complaint I hear (besides data caps) is confusion caused by so many of their contacts utilizing the seemingly innumerable options when it comes to video conferencing.