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Why Apple, Google, Microsoft Won’t Streamline Video Chat

By Mark Milian, CNN
Apple CEO Steve Jobs pledged to standardize video calling with FaceTime. But the industry has since made little progress.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs pledged to standardize video calling with FaceTime. But the industry has since made little progress.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The prospect of tech giants uniting under one protocol for video chat seems unlikely
  • A Skype user cannot talk to a FaceTime user who cannot talk to a Google Talk user
  • Despite a promise from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, FaceTime still hasn’t been opened up
  • Microsoft’s purchase of Skype last week is evidence that video calling is a big business.

(CNN) – Apple CEO Steve Jobs made a bold gesture at the company’s annual developers conference last June when he pledged to unite the technology industry under one video-calling standard.

“FaceTime is based on a lot of open standards,” Jobs said, referring to Apple’s video-chat product. “And we’re going to take it all the way. We’re going to the standards bodies starting tomorrow. And we’re going to make FaceTime an open industry standard.”

That statement sparked thunderous applause when it was made 11 months ago. But Apple appears to have made no progress since then, according to experts in the fields of video calling and Web standardization. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

The prospect of tech giants uniting under one protocol for video that would allow, say, a FaceTime user to call someone on Google Talk seems even less likely today than it did when Apple first floated the concept last year.

Microsoft and Skype

Microsoft already had a mature infrastructure for video chat — through acquisitions and internal development for Windows Live Messenger, Lync and Kinect — when it bought Skype last week for $8.5 billion.

Skype has about 170 million active users. Microsoft gets access to that network, which Skype had closely guarded from developers looking to circumvent its fences.

The developers for a mobile video application called Fring found a way past the barriers, but Skype eventually locked them out. “We wanted to provide access across islands,” said Fring CEO Avi Shechter.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a statement last week that the company would continue to invest in Skype software for non-Windows platforms. But he made no mention of opening the platform to outside developers.

Qik, which first launched its mobile video app a year ago in a deal with Sprint Nextel, plans to add Skype integration, Qik co-founder Bhaskar Roy said recently. However, Qik is owned by Skype.

Skype’s business-exclusivity deals, like the one it has with Verizon Wireless, may be the motivation for its insular behavior, Shechter said.

Skype said last year in response to Jobs’ comments that it was not considering using Apple’s technology for its video-calling programs. Skype didn’t return requests for comment.

“I think that every player has its own motivations,” Shechter said. “Overall, they’re making a mistake by not opening up.”

The challenge of ‘bridging islands’

Google is often a proponent of openness and standardization. Andy Rubin, the head of its Android group, promoted that idea in an interview with reporters last Tuesday but declined to say whether Google would open its video-chat protocol, used in Android and Gmail, to outside users.

“You don’t want to artificially create islands,” Rubin said. “You want to bridge islands.”

In the early days of e-mail, an AOL customer could not send a message to a Compuserve user. Similarly, it took some time for cellular carriers to determine how picture or video messages would be delivered to phones on other networks.

AOL created another island last week with the launch of AIM AV, a video-conferencing tool that doesn’t require a login name. The company also announced plans last week to block Gmail from connecting to its AIM chat service but says it is working on a way to import buddy lists.

Logitech, another player in video conferencing, welcomes the idea of standardizing video communication.

“We know that openness and collaboration are critical to the adoption of video calling,” Joerg Tewes, a vice president for Logitech’s consumer video division, wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “Without interoperability, video calling will never reach its full potential and achieve mass consumer adoption.”

Apple, Google and others collaborate on some standards, such as with HTML5, the Web programming language. But there are downsides to the procedure.

Developing standards typically takes much longer than when one company takes the reins, because participants debate minute details, said Jim Zemlin, executive director for the Linux Foundation, who has been involved in such negotiations. But for consumers, the benefits of interoperability usually outweigh the extra wait time, Zemlin said.

Tech giants are usually the ones to kick off these talks, several experts say. Apple, Google and Microsoft are the few companies who have the clout to rally the industry, they say.

“If you’re a small company, it’s very difficult to push your standard yourself,” said Eric Setton, a co-founder of Tango, which makes a video-chat app for smartphones. “In terms of communication platforms, it’s very important to be ubiquitous.”

Apple’s change of heart?

Apple may have seen standardization as a way to quickly gain a foothold in the video-calling market, but executives may have had a change of heart once they saw the early success of FaceTime, Zemlin said.

“Maybe even Steve Jobs underestimated just how much he was going to kick ass,” Zemlin said. “As their market share increases, they probably have less incentive to open up the standard.”

Standardization is a very transparent process. Some of the largest standards groups — the Internet Engineering Task Force, the International Organization for Standardization, the World Wide Web Consortium and American National Standards Institute — have no public record of Apple filing for an open FaceTime.

Several people from the IETF started an initiative to ask Apple to disclose parts of FaceTime’s inner workings, but nothing appears to have come of that. An IETF spokesman said he was unable to verify Apple’s plans with members, and representatives for the other three organizations didn’t return requests for comment.

Several of the world’s cell carriers, including Verizon, are working together on a voice- and video-calling service to run on 4G networks, called VoLTE. Verizon doesn’t plan to sell a product running the service until next year, a spokesman for the company said.

Experts say VoLTE is too complicated for basic video chat on the Web. And Apple’s FaceTime still is not sanctioned by carriers to be used on 3G networks.

Apple not opening up FaceTime’s infrastructure is consistent with how the company normally operates, despite the surprise and confusion created when Jobs initially pledged to lead standardization efforts, said attorney Andrew Updegrove. He is a partner at the Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove, which has represented more than 100 standards development organizations.

“Apple has always been a proprietary play and not an open play,” Updegrove wrote in an e-mail. “It wants to hold all the cards and get all the benefits, and from an execution point of view, you can’t fault them. They’ve been brilliantly successful.”

With Microsoft now at the helm of Skype, people in the industry express even less optimism that an open video-calling discussion will be fruitful any time soon.

 

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