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June 3, 2010
While the world might be focused on the magical tablet scene, the revolution of instant-on computing and finger smudges on a screen, there is one sleeper technology that is about to hit mainstream: Video conferencing.
I am perhaps a little too young to be Tiresias and too old to have a handle on the hipster gadget scene so I have my daughter to thank for this prediction. It is through the eyes of the young that we can see things new again and my eight year old embodiment of genius gave me new glasses when she was the proud recipient of a Netbook this year. Ignoring the love affair she had with a small laptop carrying all of her favorite movies and games her greatest discovery was Skype “oh, that’s a funny hat, Aaka” technology.
While video conferencing has been around for ages, it is only recently that it became something that the average consumer could truly appreciate. Like most sleeper revolutions it is not an issue of the gizmo being revolutionary since any good geek will tell you there is not a single part of the iPad that has not been seen before in multiple forms over the years. No, what a revolution requires is universal accessibility matched with technology that is inexpensive, ridiculously easy to use with a core feature that is extremely compelling. Depending on who you talk to, the iPad is there or almost there (or is just a giant Apple marketing scheme), and I would argue that video chatter is even closer.
The web cam and internet have made moving calls an option since the late nineties even if very few people have tried it. I remember in 1998 spending hundreds, wading through countless communication protocols and still having no one to talk to on the other side. One of the first hurdles was network limitations. Old fashioned copper phone lines just will not do the trick for video and audio, try as they may. However, the number of Americans with high speed internet access is reaching the near-universal point with 3G wireless service at nearly every household and 4G on the horizon. So, ignoring the cost of those data connections, the network is almost in place. Thanks to Skype’s growing popularity, ease of use, universal protocols and availability have had a major uptick throughout the computing landscape.
You can pick up an Acer Netbook for a couple Franklins and be video conferencing with anyone in minutes. Heck, cordless phones from the eighties cost more than that, so cost is no longer the issue. The primary stumbling block comes from the need of “press a button and talk” instant calls. Yes, the two minute Netbook boot-up time is only acceptable to true fanatics.
These problems are about to meet their solution. Front-facing cameras are about to invade instant-on devices everywhere in the coming two years, from the iPod Touch to your favorite Google Tablet. You will be hard pressed to find a new smart phone being released without video conferencing as a core feature in two years from now and thanks to two year phone contracts you can bet critical mass will be achieved quickly. It is too early to predict whether the software will be Skype, FaceTime or some other universal video highway, but more people than not will have a video conferencing instant-on gadget in their house in a few short years.
Easy to Use
A Netbook is a great device, no doubt, but there is a reason we love our Android and iPhone devices: They are easy. Far easier than any piece of software that requires firewalls and anti-virus software. (Not to say Android and the iPhone do not already have these in their sights, but you can bet they will be better hidden from the end user than Windows 7.) The operating system of the personal computer future is taking shape and Google, Apple, HP (thanks to Palm), RIM (BlackBerry), Nokia and Microsoft (Windows Phone 7) are delivering it. It does not matter which you pick, it is a safe bet that easy to use and universal video communication will be available on all of the tablets, smart phones and standard computers of the decade ahead.
The surest sign that an important transformation is about to take place is when I see generational divides digging in their heels. Using the iPad as an example, there are countless individuals claiming that tablets will never succeed because it is old technology, but a “young” (at heart) group of individuals shouting it is the second coming of computing. It does not take everyone to reach the critical mass necessary to market a compelling feature, and video conferencing is on the verge.
I was having a conversation with a sixteen year old telling me that he would never use that electronic eye because he does not want to be seen, an often repeated argument against the technology. Then I look at my daughter who video calls her Aaka and Aapa in Alaska on a regular basis. What makes me believe the eight year old and not the teenager? Much like the iPad, it isn’t perfect yet, but once you have had enough experience with the technology it is hard to imagine going back. There is so much additional information that can be gathered by seeing the person you are talking to that the disadvantages of having to comb your hair or put on a pair of undies before making that call are minimal issues, at best. Plus, there is a generational divide at work. My daughter will come to expect video conferencing from her phones and it does not take a world of people addicted before everyone needs it.
So, stay tuned to the gadget announcements in the months to come and do not be surprised to see “front facing camera” become a key feature in nearly every product announced. I would not predict video conferencing will get the sort of press that tablet based computing will but, in my mind, it is a far more exciting social computing revolution then moving from rodents to fingerprint-laden screens.