Why Isn’t Anyone Using Video Calling?

While there can be no doubt that video in the forms of YouTube, iPlayer etc have filled up broadband networks, and watching pre-recorded or downloaded content is widespread, mobile video has not really enjoyed the same levels of success.

Pour quoi?

It’s not like it hasn’t been touted as ‘the future’. There were great expectations that video would drive 3G adoption, especially from mobile operators. Person to person video calling and offerings where fans could subscribe to services that provided them with videos of the latest goals from their football team, were enthusiastically touted.

There was even mobile TV specific phones such as the Virgin Lobster, which tanked despite splashing out on ads with Pamela Anderson. Production companies also started making ‘mobisodes’ or short mobile tailored episodes of TV content. Yet the idea still failed to take off in a way that was originally envisaged.

Mobile TV suffered technically from interoperability issues surrounding standards, which is never positive for driving adoption – just ask anyone involved in promoting MMS the multimedia messaging ‘successor’ to SMS.

Then there are coverage and capacity issues on the network, and of course the costs incurred which then have to be recouped by charging. These constraints can easily be overcome with a solution popular in some markets – a TV receiver integrated into the mobile phone – but that cuts operators out of the value chain, so needless to say not many were keen on that idea.

Making mobile video successful depends on one important factor as well: you need to get teenagers onboard. These adults-to-be are often the king makers of up-and-coming technology – just look at the effect they’ve had on RIM’s BBM service.

Recent research also indicates that younger people are more likely to use video calling than those of older demographics. They often simply ‘hang out’ with video connections remaining constantly open, rather than ‘making calls’.

Again this is typically over Wi-Fi and broadband, so used flexibly within a location rather than out and about on mobile networks, which will no doubt hurt the networks feelings. The use of video calling among other demographics is still pretty patchy. Fixed line video phones first emerged decades ago, and despite regular airings have never really taken off.

Video conferencing adoption among business users is growing, although not quite as fast as expected, despite standardisation, low cost hardware and IP networks becoming prevalent. Hardware is often still quite expensive, especially at the high end of tele-presence, meaning it fits well into specific segments like boardrooms and distributed engineering companies, but less well in day-to-day generic communications.

Even Skype, the free video calling service, which Microsoft bought for $8 billion, has yet to persuade consumers en masse over to the delights of video calling. The end result of all this is that in 2012, video calling is no more popular than it was in 2009 despite improvements in both VC technology and services.

Even Apple’s FaceTime has failed to impress on a grand scale, despite being available on millions of iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad 2 and new iPad devices. Widespread adoption of video as a default mechanism for communication, it seems, is still a long way off – and not even Apple can help this time, as is usually the case. The reasons behind this fact are complex, varied and often subjective to the individual user.

For example, there are many people who will always find video to be intrusive and an invasion of their privacy so they would prefer to not share their image. Or it might simply be the wrong time of day or the wearing of the wrong clothes that mean they want to avoid creating the wrong impression.

Overall though, perhaps the problem of limited mobile video communications adoption is subtler. It does require a change in behaviour, and the constraints of an individual’s time and money mean that adopting anything new implies something has to be replaced or the adoption of something else has to be delayed.

Although recent advances might mean there is less fundamentally wrong with mobile video, from a technology, capacity or cost perspective, other forms of communication are easy and much more effective, so potential users may not yet consider video sufficiently compelling or as important as other things.

Rob Bamforth is a Principal Analyst working with Quocirca, focussing on the areas of service provision and mobility. His experience couples a number of years he has spent in sales and marketing, with an in-depth understanding of technology deployment and service delivery, which together give him an approach that focuses first on the business need, with technology as the supporting service.

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