Will BlackBerry PlayBook bridge the video divide?

RIM’s new tablet supports chat, but probably not with other devices. It’s time for a common solution.

When I'm on the road, there are few tools in my arsenal that I value more than video chat. But as much as I love it for boosting communication with colleagues during the day and saying goodnight to my kids at bedtime, managing the current mess of disparate and disconnected chat services is a massive pain. And, as the new BlackBerry PlayBook clearly shows, it's time for a little unity.

Research In Motion's new tablet, the BlackBerry Playbook, supports video chat through its front-facing camera. So does the Samsung Galaxy Tab. And, according to rumor, so will the second coming of the iPad. The current array of smartphones such as the iPhone 4 and the EVO 4G also support video chat. But so far, it doesn't appear that any of these devices will actually talk to each other--and that's just wrong.

As someone who's been using video conferencing in fits and starts since the mid-1990s, I'm absolutely astounded at the industry's failure to establish and embrace a unified video conferencing system that works across multiple devices and networks. Rather than move toward a common center by adopting a common standard that lets AIM and iChat users talk to Google and Skype customers, and leaves room for any new service to jump in on the conversation, the leaders in the space have consistently put Silicon Valley power politics ahead of user experience by vying for dominance in the long-nascent category--thereby rendering almost unusable (by mainstream standards) a technology that everyone assumed would have been commonplace before the turn of the century.

Now that Apple, Google, and RIM are bringing this experience to handheld devices, the problem is going to get even worse unless these companies find a way to bridge the video divide. Apple's FaceTime--originally launched on the iPhone, extended to the iPod Touch, and expected to be available in the next-generation iPad--could possibly emerge as that bridge.

Apple established FaceTime as an open software standard for video chat, meaning that third-parties are welcome to build on it and implement it in their own devices. Details of the video chat protocol used by the RIM PlayBook are not yet known, but screenshots of the device have icons and images that are reminiscent of FaceTime.

Apple has ambitious plans to sell 10 million FaceTime capable devices in 2010 and tens of millions more in 2011. As impressive as that seems, though, its not enough to cement FaceTime as the de facto video chat standard.

But, if devices like the PlayBook get on the FaceTime bandwagon, it could start to gain momentum and reach a level of critical mass. Its not necessarily important that FaceTime, or any single video chat protocol become dominant, but it would certainly help video chat meet user expectations if the various smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices can all find a way to play nice together.

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Tony Bradley

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