Switched On: FaceTime prepares for prime time

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Perhaps the most-predicted announcement from Apple's September 1 press event is the addition of two cameras to the iPod touch. Long before Apple revealed its FaceTime videoconferencing software with the iPhone 4, various disassemblers noticed that there seemed to be a place left open for a camera in the last iPod touch, despite Apple's claim that the product didn't "need more stuff." Nonetheless, few could deny the usefulness of such an add-on, particularly when paired with the touch's relatively generous internal memory capacity.

Now, though, adding image and video capture to the touch makes even more sense. Apple's FaceTime video chat software is Wi-Fi-only, and while 3G support would certainly make It more useful on the go, imbuing the iPod touch with the ability to make video calls greatly expands Apple's addressable market with FaceTime, brings the touch into a whole new category and possibly makes it the first affordable, carrier-independent mass market videophone.

I heard you on my RAZR way back in '06
You asked 'What's new?" and then I followed with "How's tricks?"
Our phones were lacking any Skypes or Frings or Qiks.
Oh oh

But now you have become a star of my phone's screen.
Subtle expressions can convey just what you mean.
Soon we'll project ourselves like Emperor Palpatine.
Oh oh. No one was caring
Oh oh. What you were wearing.

Video killed the audio call.
Video killed the audio call.
Behold, Internet Protocol
Has given us the photo call.

Now calls on touch screens mean touch up makeup and hair.
And there's no awkward pauses, just an awkward stare.
And we can't pan down lest one see our underwear.
Oh oh. Frame rates will double.
Oh oh. Just shave that stubble.

Video killed the audio call.
Video killed the audio call.
It's on your phone and on TV.
Goodbye Ma Bell. Hello IP.
As conference calling goes past three
We'll put the "orgy" in "4G."

Apple, of course, is not alone in making a video call push, as historical concerns about consumers' camera shyness have been tossed aside like Jennicam's bandwidth bill. In addition to other handset makers pursuing video chats on the go, there's a full-court press to bring videoconferencing to the television. Panasonic and others are forging ahead with add-on products for large plasma TVs that make use of array microphones to being the whole family into the picture. Logitech's gambling with GoogleTV in the hope of establishing a Trojan horse for moving its webcam business into the living room. It says a lot that video conferencing is one Kinect's less headline-grabbing features. Even the Avaak Vue, an affordable surveillance cam product that Switched On has discussed before, is trying to stake out a claim on the idea of remote presence and personal broadcasting rather than traditional call center-enabled security monitoring.

Soon, the major challenge facing broader adoption of videoconferencing won't be hardware, but disparate and incompatible standards. The push to own a significant chunk of the proprietary video call pie may be part of what has spurred Cisco's interest in potentially acquiring IPO-primed Skype -- Cisco acquired the raw materials for an entry into consumer videoconferencing when it purchased Pure Digital and its Flip camcorders, which are starting to support bigger screens. Indeed, the industrial design of the Flip Slide would be more task-appropriate if there were a video camera mounted above its screen.

If these walls can come down, then the viral power of the ensuing social norms could put even more pressure to those clinging to the good old copper landline for basic communication, but it's more likely that standards will be decided by de facto market might than agreed-upon interoperability. There are, after all, limits to what you can achieve over a phone call.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.