Mobile video calling: Possible, but not necessarily worth it

mike Dano

Several recent developments--and rumors on the iPhone front--indicate continued interest in video calling. But it's unclear whether the service has any real future.

Specifically, Sprint Nextel's forthcoming 4G phone, the mobile WiMAX-capable, Android-powered Evo from HTC, sports a front-facing camera that appears intended to support video calling. Strangely, though, Sprint seems willing to sit back and let Android developers take the lead (and possible revenues) on a feature that in years past would have been the sole domain of a wireless carrier.

I asked Sprint about the carrier's silence on the video calling topic, and here's the response: "We will not support/provide video calling at launch--but at the same time we will not block Android developers from utilizing the front-facing camera. We have not announced any pricing details on device or service plans."

Interestingly, Sprint's approach seems to align with Verizon Wireless'; the nation's largest carrier recently approved Saygus' Android-powered VPhone through its Open Development Initiative and the main selling point of the gadget is a front-facing camera and video calling service. However, since the phone traveled through Verizon's ODI effort, it likely will not be available in Verizon stores. Saygus has so far remained silent on if, when, and where the phone will go on sale commercially.

Meantime, AT&T Mobility, the nation's second-largest carrier, has long offered a type of video calling--though you wouldn't know it from AT&T's lethargic marketing of the service. AT&T's "Video Share" enables one-way, live streaming video feeds that can be seen by both users while they are participating in a two-way voice conversation. Once users have initiated a Video Share call, either party can be the one generating the video stream for the other to see. It costs around $5 per month and is available on a wide variety of AT&T feature phones (though very few smartphones, and not the iPhone).

So is AT&T's video sharing service successful? "While we can't disclose subscriber numbers or discuss future plans, we are pleased that AT&T Video Share delivers a dramatic way for our customers to share personal moments and key events beyond the capabilities of voice and text," according to an AT&T spokeswoman.

Surprisingly, video calling services have been around since the 1960s, according to Wikipedia. (What would we do without Wikipedia?) And though a handful of service providers appear to have had a modicum of success in the space (think Skype's video calling feature) many have found it challenging (think Motorola's Ojo). Japan's NTT DoCoMo has offered video calling services since at least 2003, but it doesn't seem to be much of a smash hit (DoCoMo did not respond to questions on the topic).

So what's the future of video calling? Will the Evo help spark a face-to-face calling revolution? Or will it take an advancement from a player like Apple to push the space forward? (Ongoing rumors hint at front-facing cameras, and a possible service dubbed iChat, heading to the iPhone and iPad.)

No telling, really. I like to clump video calling alongside Twitter: It's a service that I guess other people might use, but it's something I personally think is completely unnecessary. --Mike