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The Ten Deadly Sins of Mobile Video Calling – Sins 9 and 10: Society

This is the third of three posts in my mini-series about mobile video calling. If you’re new, you might like to take a look at the first two posts (here and here) before diving in to this one.

Having already discussed some of the technical and experiential barriers to good mobile video experiences, in this post I cover two societal problems which barriers standing in the way of an optimal mobile video experience.

Sin 9: Limited use cases

To be frank, sometimes you really don’t want mobile video.

  • When you’re driving. This probably goes without saying. Though, it wouldn’t surprise me if people try it anyway, holding the phone to the steering wheel. Same set of folks who nimbly text and send emails while moving at 60 mph on the 101. (For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s a congested stretch of freeway that runs the length of Silicon Valley, bemoaned by everyone who’s ever driven on it.)
  • When you don’t exactly look your best. Just out of the shower, or when you’re in your jammies. You just don’t want video in these cases.
  • When you’re somewhere you don’t want the other person to see. Classic example – the bathroom. Or around 3:10 pm, when my kids come home from school. Even though the door to my office is shut, my children decide there is something fantastically important that they have to share with me right at that moment. They knock on the door – I don’t answer. They take this as permission to open the door, and they peek in. They see me talking, but being used to seeing me mute myself on voice calls to talk to them, they proceed to wave their hands to get my attention. Then they start to whisper, ‘dad’, ‘DAD!’ At that point, I have to apologize to a room full of sales people, get up from my chair, and shoo my children out of the room. Embarrassing.
  • When you don’t want the other side to see you. B2C conversations – that call to the pizza place, or the call to the insurance agent. Maybe you just have no interest in that person seeing you. It’s a privacy issue of sorts. When communication is highly impersonal, an impersonal modality like voice works naturally. Video is much more personal.


Some of this is social norm and may evolve over time. I will say – at Skype, we use video constantly and it is the de facto mode of operation for business calls. I’ve had calls with people that were in their jammies in the morning, or sitting in a messy office. We get used to it.

Some of this is also not specific to mobile video, but rather a problem for video as a whole. However, these problematic use cases are amplified by video, where – more often than in desktop video – they will arise.

Sin 10: Having no-one to call

Products like Facetime support iOS to iOS calling. Others, like Tango, do mobile to mobile calling. The companies behind these products promote those use cases as the key things enabled by their products. The reality is – no one wants that.

I don’t want to call an iPhone, or a PC, or a DROID, or a WiFi-enabled smartphone. I want to call my wife. Or my son. Or my grandma, or my best friend.

Video calling is all about connecting people, and not just any people – it’s about connecting people to those they really want to see. And furthermore, it’s about making those connections at the right opportunities – those spontaneous moments where the caller wants or needs to see the other person because now is the right time, or the only time.

This may sound obvious, but making this happen is by far the biggest problem with mobile video calling.

In reality, mobile video calling is frequently about barriers – barriers that get in the way of connecting me to the person I want to see, right now. There are four barriers, and all of them get in the way.

The first barrier is the device. Many video solutions require that the other participant have a device of a certain type, or from a certain manufacturer. Indeed, most of the mobile video solutions on the market today require that the other side of the call have a video-enabled mobile phone.

Going back to my original point – it’s not about devices, it’s about people. You might want to call someone who happens to be on a mobile phone that has video. Or, they may be sitting in front of their computer – then the PC is the right tool. Or, they may be on the road with their laptop. They might be sitting in the living room, in front of their TV.

To make calling work, we need to be able to connect that call to whatever device is available and most convenient for the person you’re trying to call. After all, it’s you who is asking for the call – you’re intruding, if you like, into the time and space of the person you’re calling. If that video call is to happen – and happen now – it must work with whatever device the person you’re trying to call happens to have.

The technical challenges we have to overcome to break this boundary are formidable. Think about it – video needs to be available on platforms as diverse as PCs, Macs, from high-end gaming rigs to low-end netbooks. On TVs from a slew of manufacturers, each of which runs proprietary operating systems on occasionally arcane processors. On mobile phones with several very different operating systems.

Indeed, even just thinking about mobile, Android as an operating system is not just one platform as far as mobile video is concerned; Android runs on an enormous range of hardware, from entry-level barely-smartphones with CPUs that are single core and running at 200Mhz, up to dual-core 1+ GHz monsters. Some have DSPs, some don’t. Some have great cameras, some have poor ones. They all have different screen sizes, with different resolutions. For mobile video to work, it needs to work on all of these. We refer to this problem as the ‘smartphone zoo’.

The second barrier is the network technology. Some video solutions on the market work only over WiFi, or only over LTE. This is bad enough when you have to keep your network in mind before making a call. But, factor in that the person you want to call must be on a specific network too, and once again we dramatically reduce the likelihood that you’ll be able to make a call.

Think about this from a voice perspective. When you dial a number from your mobile phone, do you care whether your mobile is on WiFi or GSM or CDMA? Do you need to think about whether the person you’re calling is logged into WiFi? Of course not. You make the call, and it works. That’s it. For mobile video to succeed, it must work on any network.

The third barrier is the service provider. Some mobile video solutions – especially earlier ones deployed by mobile operators – work only between users of the same service provider. Oftentimes, video calls are most valuable when they are with someone far away – that quick call to check up on my mom in North Carolina, or to see how my buddy Bill is doing on his European trip. Almost by definition, the caller and person they’re calling will not have the same service providers in any of these situations.

Even for video calls between users in the same geographic region, where there is a possibility of the users having the same provider – they often won’t. Frankly, I have no idea what service provider most of my friends use. Think about the five people you call the most on your mobile phone. Do know what mobile operator each of them is on? Human relationships do not obey the rules of geography and certainly not the rules of carrier allegiance. For mobile video to succeed, it must be possible for a user to call someone else without even needing to think about who their operator is.

The fourth barrier – and the most important one – is service availability. If I want to have a video call with my mom, my mom needs to be reachable on a video calling service. Breaking this barrier is partly about growing user base, but what really matters is that the ten people I want to reach are available. To be successful, a mobile video solution needs to be a mirror of the close-connection social graph for the person using it. If those close connections – those ten people that really matter to me – are available on the service, then the service brings great value to me.

So there you have it. The ten deadly sins of mobile video – challenges in technology, experience and society, each of which hamper the adoption of mobile video. Certainly all of them do not need to be solved for mobile video to take off – that’s already happening. But they’ll certainly play a part in determining how the next few years of mobile video calling take shape.

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