The Video Call Evolves
Apple presented the FaceTime video-calling feature on the iPhone 4 as a novelty, but video calling on mobile phones has been around for years. Apple's bet isn't on traditional video calling, as many users around the world are now used to; instead, it's a much more closed ecosystem in need of adoption by other phone manufacturers. We look at video calling from its early days, how it evolved, and where Apple picked up its ideas.
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The first 3G networks were introduced in 2001, but there weren't many phones around to take advantage of their capabilities. It was only in 2003 when Sony Ericsson introduced its first 3G phone that was also able to make video calls. The quality of video calls on the Z1010 was not great though, as the networks at the time were slow in comparison with today's standards, and the video call camera supported a meager 176-by-144 (QCIF) pixels resolution.
Image: Sony Ericsson
Camera Not Included
In 2004 Nokia introduced its first 3G capable smartphone, the 6630, which was able to make video calls, but it had no front-facing camera. You had to buy a separate stand with a built-in camera to make face-to-face video calls.
Big in Japan
Video calling really took off in Japan in 2005, with phones such as the N901iC from NTT DoCoMo, which let users not only make video calls using the front-facing camera, but also send text messages superimposed on their actual image. Video calling was to explode in the following months, with NTT DoCoMo forging agreements with other carriers in the region for international video calls.
Image: Live Door
Marketing vs. Reality
Marketing pictures versus reality: By the end of 2006, several Nokia's NSeries phones, like the N70 (left) and the N90 (right), had a secondary camera for video calls, or video call capabilities over 3G. But setting up the service was difficult and costly, and the video quality was choppy at best.
Image: Nokia, Edongskey
The great thing about 3G video calling is that it works between different devices, from different manufactures. In this picture, you can see a video call between two Nokia phones, the 2007 model of the N95 (right) and a 2006 model of N70 (left).
Image: Jon Arnold
One Way Road
Sony Ericsson introduced several other video call capable phones, with the K800i (right) in 2006, and various other models like the Z750 (left) in 2007. In early 2007, when the popularity of video calls was increasing in Asia and Europe, AT&T (Cingular back then) was only demoing one-way video calling in the United States.
Image: Sony Ericsson
Made in China
After a few years of dabbling with video calling, users came to realize that the feature was not ideal. There is a slight delay between the sender and the receiver, and the users have no privacy as the device has to be on speakerphone during the video call. Pictured, the first Chinese mobile phone video call demo in 2008.
Image: Shanghai Daily
The Japanese really love video phones. This 2008 Softbank Mobile Photos 920SC slider phone had a 3-megapixel video call camera on the front, and a 5-megapixel camera on the back. Too bad though that the video calls with the 3-megapixel camera were on a tiny (by today's standards) 2.4-inch display.
Getting the Jump on Wi-Fi
Apple's idea of WiFi-only video calling also came before the iPhone 4. In 2009, Siracom introduced the UniData WiFi Videophone, which had a QVGA 320-by-240 pixel video call camera, and used the H.264 video codec for up to 30fps video transmission. This video gives you a fair idea of the quality of video calls made using the SQ300.
Nothing New in Europe, Asia
Toward the end of the decade, 3G video calling was nothing new to Europeans and Asians. In some countries like the U.K., video calling covers the vast majority of the urban areas, and video calls cost just as much as regular phone calls. With the speed improvements in 3G networks, video quality got better, and many manufactures launched video call capable phones, like the Samsung Jet in this picture.
Image: 3G Doctor
Evo Runs on Fast (but Limited) Sprint
Can high speed data networks kick off video calls in the U.S.? Sprint certainly thinks so. The 2010 Google Android powered HTC Evo 4G runs on the fast (but limited) Sprint 4G network and requires the Qik video streaming app for users at both ends of the video call. The Evo has a big 4.3-inch display, and a front-facing 1.3 megapixel camera for quality video calls.
Wi-Fi Only (For Now)
FaceTime on the iPhone 4 is not transmitted over the 3G network, but via Wi-Fi only, and only between iPhone 4 devices, moving away from the traditional concept of video calls. Apple says in the future you will be able to use FaceTime via 3G networks, and the company opened the standard to other manufacturers as well.
Will Others Embrace FaceTime?
The success of Apple's FaceTime relies on whether software and phone makers will embrace the new open standard - and of course, on how many iPhone 4 devices the company is going to sell (since compatibility is limited to the latest Apple iPhone only). We could see front-facing cameras in future iterations of the iPad and iPod touch, but until then it would be great if Apple and AT&T reached an agreement to allow use of the service via 3G networks as well.
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