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The problems with video chat

Today's smartphones can double as your MP3 player, your camera, and even your GPS device. But there's one area where they're not quite ready for prime time.

Smartphones accounted for 59 percent of the handsets sold to U.S. consumers in the third quarter of 2011, according to The NPD Group's Mobile Phone Track.

As the phones' penetration has grown, consumers have been more likely to find themselves with an ever more versatile tool in their pockets. These capabilities have certainly contributed to the decline in once hot-selling categories, such as MP3 players, digital cameras, and portable navigation products. These companies, in turn, have sought to differentiate themselves with, for example, larger screens on car navigation products and better image quality and longer zooms on digital cameras.

Smartphones are relatively cheap because of carrier subsidization; they are almost always with us because of the desire to be available for phone calls. However, are consumers settling for a second-hand experience in leaving their specialized gadgets behind? According to recent research from NPD Connected Intelligence, most consumers would say they are not.

Proprietary apps like Apple's FaceTime limit the overall reach of video chat. Apple

When surveyed about their satisfaction in performing a variety of tasks on their handsets, smartphone owners were overwhelmingly satisfied with all activities, eliciting either an "extremely satisfied" or "very satisfied" from the majority of users. Despite the warm embrace, though, some tasks earned higher levels of satisfaction and many showed room for improvement.

Among the tasks consumers were least likely to be satisfied with was video chat, with only 66 percent of smartphone owners saying they were "extremely" or "very satisfied" with the experience. In contrast, 88 percent of smartphone owners expressed that level of satisfaction with making phone calls and nearly as many were as satisfied listening to music or audio on smartphones.

Indeed, the relative lack of enthusiasm for video chatting on smartphones is not surprising given some of the hurdles facing the activity. These include:

Fractured standards
Imagine how ridiculous it would be if one phone couldn't call another. Alas, that's the case with video chat programs. While some, such as Skype, are available on a wide array of popular platforms, native video-calling applications, such as FaceTime on the iPhone, achieve integration as the default method of remote face-to-face communication.

Bandwidth challenges
Video chat can be handled competently by most home broadband connections so there's not much of an issue using it over Wi-Fi from such a setting. However, if you try to use it on the go, it can be challenging on a cellular connection.

This is particularly true because unlike other streaming video applications, video chat depends on how fast your connection up to the Internet is, whereas today's cellular implementations (like those of Internet access in general) deliver far greater speed when sending data down from the Internet. This is why most carriers focus on video chat as an application for their 4G networks; 4G-capable phones are most likely to have front-facing cameras.

Like phone calls, video calls can only happen when two people are prepared to chat at the same time. Unlike phone calls, though, most video chat services can't redirect missed attempts to a "video mail" equivalent to voicemail. That's a particular disadvantage for video chat because even if people are available to receive a video call, they may be less likely to accept depending on who's calling and how comfortable they feel about their appearance when video chatting with that party.

With other smartphone tasks, such as listening to music or shooting video, there is a precedent to the experience with dedicated devices. However, while some may have experienced video chat on the PC, it is for many a new experience, particularly on the go. Carriers, handset makers, and software providers should have a strong interest in righting its deficiencies, though, if the experience is to live up to its promise as a key driver of 4G data.