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Anyone remember when you could only make mobile-to-mobile calls within the same network? For example, AT&T customers could only connect with other AT&T mobile customers and not those on the networks of Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon Wireless. That kinda sucked. In the end, the carriers let everyone make calls to whomever they wanted because that's what the market demanded.
Using this example as a historical frame of reference, let's cast our eyes upon mobile video chatting.
On Tuesday, Qik updated its video chatting application for the Android platform. Before yesterday's update, Qik only worked on select networks and between select devices. This hindered the service's uptake. The new version allows most any Android device to conduct live, two-way video chats with other Android devices and, surprisingly, the Apple iPhone (if the iPhone also has Qik installed). Skype now owns Qik.
Skype has its own, separate software for video chatting. It works with Android and iPhone devices, as well as Windows and Apple computers.
We all know that the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch can conduct FaceTime chats with other iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and Apple computers, but only when the iOS device is connected to Wi-Fi. Qik at least works across 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi networks.
Google created a video chatting application for Android 3.0 Honeycomb, but it only works between Honeycomb devices. A report that surfaced this week suggests Google is prepared to release a native video chatting application for all Android devices.
A service called ooVoo offers mobile video chatting between Android devices via 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi. It says that support for Apple iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) is forthcoming. It also has desktop software.
The last major player is Fring, which offers video chatting, IM, group video chatting, and other features to Android, iOS, and Symbian devices. Video chats can be dialed up over 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi with Fring.
The problem with all of these services is that, for most part, they require users to have the same software. In other words, Qik video chats can only work with other devices running Qik software, and so on down the line. This is a flawed strategy.
While I fully understand these companies' need to forge their own identity and customer base, the number of limitations involved are effectively preventing mobile video chatting from taking off. End users don't care about the technology that makes it all happen, they just want to be able to connect to their colleagues, friends, and loved ones without too much fuss. So, how does this get fixed?
When Apple first announced FaceTime as a feature of the iPhone 4, it said that it would open up the technology under FaceTime's hood so that it could be used by others. Frankly, I've seen no evidence that it has actually done this, but let's assume the offer still stands. One obvious solution would be for every other provider to drop its own technology and use Apple's. Perhaps they can still offer differentiation through their user interfaces, or feature sets, or cost, but the basic functionality could be made to work across platforms and networks. This would be the easiest way out.
Another possible answer would be to create a standard. This would require the collective effort of the industry, and would cost money and take years to complete. In the end, this might be the best route for end users, as interoperability could be assured or mandated by the standard. But the drawbacks are many.
Perhaps Google will be generous and provide its own open video chatting standard that can be used across devices and platforms using standard Web technologies.
The bottom line here is that the silo approach is too confusing, too annoying, and stalling video chat services from becoming mainstream. The application developers, platform developers, handset makers, and network operators need to iron this out so that it works easily and simply no matter the device, platform, or network involved.