iOS Video Chat and the Windows User

I have become somewhat of a frequent work traveler this year. Most of my company’s jobs have been located at least an hour an a half’s drive from home, so even when I get home at night, it is often late. The travel has gotten even more frequent during the last six months, as I have been on the road pretty much every other week. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’m truly thankful to have a good, stable job these days. However, I do have a wife and three young kids at home, and it is hard being away for several days at a time.

Ever since the announcement of the iPhone 4′s front facing camera, paired with Apple’s FaceTime video chat software, I have been patiently waiting for some way to use it to video chat with my wife and kids back home on my wife’s Windows netbook when I am away. As part of that same announcement, Steve Jobs said that FaceTime would eventually be released as an open standard, and while I knew that wouldn’t happen immediately, I really thought it would have happened by now. Instead of quickly releasing it as a bulletproof and open way to implement video chat that any 3rd party can use in their app, Apple has left the door open for other communication platform developers to implement their own video chat programming to fill in the gap. These other apps would probably appear anyway, to some extent, but Apple could really extend the reach of FaceTime by getting out ahead of all the competition in this space.

My disappointment grew a little yesterday with the release of FaceTime for the Mac. I realize that Apple has to take care of their own first, but there are a lot of iPhone owners out there who, like myself, are Windows users on the desktop. Apple really needs to get it in gear and, even if they aren’t ready to release FaceTime as an open standard, they at least need to release a simple FaceTime client for Windows so the rest of us aren’t left stranded, looking for some other way to see the person on the other end of the line.

Despite the fact that Apple has left the door wide open here, very few services have ventured into the gap. In fact, right now there are only two alternatives to FaceTime for video chat on the iOS: Fring and Yahoo Messenger. Both apps allow video chat to take place over a 3G connection, which FaceTime does not. However, Fring does not have a desktop client, which limits its usefulness, in my opinion. Its only real ace in the hole is cross platform communication with Nokia and Androind users. When it comes to communicating with fellow iOS users, for anyone with consistent WiFi, or with a jailbroken device and My3G, why would you use Fring in lieu of FaceTime with its vastly superior video quality?

So we are left with Yahoo Messenger. Out of all the iOS communication clients out there, this is probably the last one I would have guessed would blaze a trail where no one else on the App Store has gone. But, here they are. Thanks to a recent update, Yahoo Messenger is the only app available that will allow an iPhone 4 or 3GS to video chat with a Windows PC user. This app certainly has its flaws, and the video quality doesn’t even begin to compare with FaceTime, even over a WiFi connection. However, when you are the only game in town and your app is functional and priced right, then you have the initiative. Well, Yahoo Messenger is functional, and it is free, which means that it will probably see a lot of downloads, even if many people are just taking it for a quick spin to see how well it works. That’s what I did, and at least until Apple or Skype wise up and get something more compelling out to compete with this app, I am going to stick with it.

So let’s take a look at how Yahoo Messenger for iOS’s video chat feature works with a Windows PC. If you have the app running in the background and have push enabled for it, you will get a sound and pop up notice of an incoming video call with buttons to accept or cancel the call.

IM messages from Yahoo Messenger will actually be delivered via a push message even if the app is not running in the background, but unfortunately voice and video call notifications are not handled the same way and require the app to at least be in the background. If you place the call, the screen looks very much like the layout of the native phone app making a FaceTime call.

Upon accepting the call, you are presented with a screen layout similar to FaceTime, with your caller filling the large part of the screen, and a thumbnail of yourself in the bottom right corner.

You also have access to most of the same call features as FaceTime with Yahoo Messenger. They are available when you dial out, and you can bring them back up by tapping on the screen at any time during a call.

You can swap from the front camera to the rear, mute, hold, or enable the speaker. If your phone is jailbroken and you use SBSettings, there is a neat trick you can use to enable a bluetooth headset for video calls. There is a free Bluetooth Mono Headset toggle available on Cydia that allows you to force all audio to any connected bluetooth headset.

I much prefer using this for video calls since I usually have a headset on and it is much more private not having to use the speaker to carry on your conversation.

As far as the call quality goes, it is a bit of a mixed bag. My wife made a couple of test calls from our house to my office for this review. Both locations have Comcast high speed Internet access and get good upload and download speeds and we were both connected to 801.11 G WiFi routers. She has an MSI Wind netbook and used the built-in webcam with an external mic. In the first call, the video was very jumpy and slow, but the audio was clear. We made a second WiFi call right after, and the video was much, much smoother on both ends, with the audio being pretty much the same. So, I guess if you have a bad connection, you should just try again and see if that clears it up.

After the first two calls, I disconnected from WiFi and called my wife over AT&T 3G. I know AT&T rightfully catches a lot of flack for poor coverage in different markets, but we get pretty solid coverage here in the Memphis, TN area. The connection was smooth and as for the quality over 3G, I would say it was somewhere in between the two WiFi calls we made, which is pretty good. I was actually surprised that the video was as clear and fluid as it was. However, the audio was a bit more choppy at times. My wife said that she got a pop up message on her end saying that the quality may not be as good because of a slower connection. This is the first time that message has come up, so I would imagine that it had to do with me being on 3G.

My experience with Yahoo Messenger is fairly limited at this point, so I checked out the customer reviews of the app on the App Store. While the reviews are positive overall, there are two common complaints. For some unknown reason, Yahoo has not set up the current generation iPod Touch as a video compatible device, even though it has front and rear cameras. Considering that they allow the iPhone 3GS to make and receive video calls, this is a pretty embarrassing oversight that Yahoo needs to correct as soon as possible. There were also mentions of a possible audio bug that reroutes or disables system sounds on the iPhone after a call, but I have not noticed this issue myself. The only other bug I have seen the is the app freezing up for a minute after hanging up a video call. The app also crashed once while trying to hang up.

Yahoo Messenger isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, as it is certainly not the most polished app in the App Store. There are several bugs mentioned here, and the video quality isn’t as good as FaceTime. However, if you are already a Yahoo Messenger user or are in need of a way to video chat with someone using a Windows PC, this app does well enough to be worth a try. Of course, the fact that it is free certainly doesn’t hurt in that department. To be fair, though, Yahoo Messenger has a lot of potential if the consistency can be improved, the bugs can be worked out, and the ridiculous iPod Touch limitation is fixed. I know I will definitely be using it a lot to keep in touch with my family when I am out on the road over the next two weeks. As I said before, since Yahoo struck first in this category, they currently have the initiative. But it is up to them to make the necessary improvements to keep users from abandoning them as soon as Skype or Apple add Windows compatibility to their services.

Yahoo Messenger is free, and can be found in the App Store here.