Friday, October 15, 2010

Video Chat Balkanization

So... Apple has FaceTime for their devices. Skype has long had video chat built in. Google's chat's had video capability for a while, now, as have several of the other "legacy" instant messaging platforms. There's other video chat apps out there, too. As far as I know, none of them interoperates with any others.

Previously, when we had this situation with text-based instant messaging, you had to use a tool like Trillian, Gaim, Adium, etc., if you wanted to talk to all your friends and only have to have one piece of software running on your computer. None of these multi-protocol tools was perfect, but it was better than chewing up all your system resources just running chat applications (or, simply not talking to certain people because they weren't in your network).

Video's previously been kind of a fringe thing. But, it's getting pushed, hard, now. Cell phone makers are starting to tout having two cameras (and advertising it in the context of video chat). Companies like FaceBook are teaming up with companies like Skype to gain video capabilities. Video's a lot heavier a resource consumer than text chats are - even just at idle - and that's even if they're coded well. I remember, when I traveled to Germany, last year, that Skype had a huge memory leak. It would end up crippling my Mac if I left it running for any length of time. Even with my current laptop's 8GB of RAM, I can't imagine running more than one system-eating video application, just so I can talk to everyone who might want to video chat. I can't imagine that a Trillian-like tool will be able to run efficiently, if the underlying technologies it's trying to bridge suck. And, unlike with instant messaging where your "reduced experience" might mean your emoticons don't quite show up correctly on your friend's computer. Big deal. With video, I gotta think that "reduced experience" may equate to "unusable," or, at the very least, "painful".

It seems that Internet-related technology penetration is reaching a threshold where we need to start thinking vendor-neutral at the core of new communication tools. Otherwise, it's going to reach a state where (using an older tech for comparison), you can't talk to someone because you don't have the right kind of phone; won't be able to watch broadcast TV because you don't have the right kind of TV. If we're going to debate things like "network neutrality", we gotta start thinking about making it so that all new communications technologies are "open" (even if doing so requires the gun-point of legislation to ensure).

And, for the record, I don't really want generalized video chat. To me, it has its uses, but not really as an every-day kind of tool. It was great to have when work separated me from my wife for days at a time, but I wouldn't have used it "just to chat" with someone I can see every day. I don't even like video conference calls. I don't want to have to worry about how I or my surroundings look every time the damned "vid" rings. But, if I'm going to be forced down this path, I don't want to have closed communication technologies forcing me to choose who I can talk to.


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