iPhone next-gen: Ready for video chat?

Business users may not be ready to be seen; younger customers likely to latch on

Apple is expected to announce its fourth-generation iPhone hardware on Monday that will include a forward-facing camera that can be used for video chat, allowing real-time wireless videoconferencing.

The expectation for video chat is based on two prototypes of the next-generation iPhone, including one found in a bar and reviewed by Gizmodo that included a new forward-facing camera as well as the rear-facing one used for taking snapshots.

With news about iPhone hardware and its new mobile operating system (iPhone OS 4) expected Monday at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), it's possible that software enabling video chat could also be announced. While just about anything Apple introduces seems to catch on with consumers and even business customers, will video chat also prove popular?

Several analysts were dubious about the value of video chat for business for many reasons, including what they called the "ugly" factor. However, they conceded there might be a sweet spot for the techonology among young consumers.

The ugly factor refers to a worker's appearance during a spur of the moment video chat with a client or a boss whom a worker is trying to impress. A boss seeing an employee with hair tussled and wearing a T-shirt could give an unprofessional impression that would be enough to make video chat unappealing for most workplaces.

Some workers are accustomed to videoconferencing from a desktop computer while working at home, but making videoconferencing mobile and on a small screen could lead to more casual and even reckless uses, with workers talking while driving or rushing to a plane, they said.

Do you need to see your employees that much?

Given such negative examples, several analysts questioned what the business value of video chat could be.

"Seeing [another worker's] face in real time does not really add that much to the level of productivity over just hearing a voice and perhaps sharing a document people are working on," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

However, Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research, disagreed. "Seeing someone's face increases the communications bandwidth and the data bandwidth, too," he said. "You know whether you're being listened to and understood. You form a stronger relationship. It's not like being there, but it's a lot better than just voice."

Gottheil said his consulting organization is looking into inexpensive videoconferencing technology for doing presentations. "We want to be better known by our clients. That's what will drive video chat into the enterprise: Salespeople using the phone will insist on it and not for cold calling. That's too intrusive. But once a relationship starts to form, you want to strengthen it."

But another naysayer, Kevin Burden of ABI Research concluded, "for the most part, most people will say no to video chat." Burden noted that video phone calls from desk phones and expensive executive desktop computers and monitors have never taken off after years of attempts.

"You could say things are different now, and some will say it's possibly the right time for video chat, since I get to see nonverbal cues. But I could also get to see my boss get angry, which is why I might not want to use it," Burden said.

The predominant philosophy that "Apple can do whatever it wants" might not apply to video chat on the iPhone, Burden reasoned. "Even though Apple has got a way of taking apps people only think they want and making them work, I don't think video chat will be one of them."

Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney said many businesses will find that still photographs, rather than stored video and video chat, are all they need. "And photos are a lot easier to store and move around wirelessly," he said.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)

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