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Apple FaceTime: first impressions

Apple seems to have answered the prayers of its fans that were crying out for video conferencing. But on closer inspection FaceTime may fall short of expectations.

Since the iPhone's first release, the Apple faithful have been begging the big fruit for a front-facing camera and video-conferencing software. This morning Apple announced the iPhone 4, complete with a forward-facing camera and new software called FaceTime, though something tells us this isn't exactly what the fans had been crying out for.

The camera itself is fine, its VGA-quality image sensor is nothing extraordinary, but it will do the job. FaceTalk, on the other hand, will struggle to inspire a new wave of mobile video-conferencing thanks to a number very limiting specifications.

Apple aficionados had hoped for software compatible with the iChat app on OS X so they could video call other Mac users, but instead FaceTalk will only communicate with other iPhone 4 users. In some circles of friends this may work out fine, but for the most part this will halt most iPhone users from finding that many people to chat with.

The other significant requirement is that the iPhone will need to be connected to a Wi-Fi network to use FaceTalk, making it a less than ideal mobile solution, especially in Australia. Not only will your friends, family or colleagues need to own an iPhone 4, but they will also need to be in range of a hotspot — an unlikely occurrence in Oz unless the user is at home or at the office. This will probably lead to many people calling first to check if their buddies are on Wi-Fi before they make a video call, and at that point you may as well just speak to one another.

What could be very interesting to see is how third-party VoIP service providers make use of the front-facing camera and software application programming interface. At a recent media briefing in Sydney, Skype vice president and GM for Asia Pacific Dan Neary told the press that video was definitely a major push for Skype on mobile devices in the immediate future. With Skype users on iPhone recently gaining access to 3G VoIP calling, the dots are joining up for the VoIP company, and others, to turn this latest iPhone innovation into something usable.