The Era of Videoconferencing on Smartphones and Tablets is Here

Just a year ago, videoconferencing on a smartphone or tablet computer seemed a vaguely futuristic concept. Fast-forward to summer 2010. Suddenly, in the wake of new and upcoming products such as Apple's FaceTime app on the iPhone 4 and Cisco's Cius tablet--the era of ultra-mobile videoconferencing has arrived.

Videoconferencing has been available for years on laptops and, more recently, netbooks. But "the stars have aligned to make extremely mobile videoconferencing a reality now," says Ira Weinstein, senior analyst and partner for Wainhouse Research, a rich media and collaboration research firm. "The 4G and, to some extent, 3G networks are just now able to support videoconferencing. And the mobile devices, especially those with 1GHZ processors such as the HTC Evo 4G smartphone, are now powerful enough to provide the experience."

Videoconferencing on smartphones and tablets makes a lot of sense for enterprise users, Weinstein says. "Communications have to go where you go, not the other way around. If you're waiting in an airport lounge, or you're at your son's baseball game, and you need to be a video call, it makes sense to make the call using the device you have with you--your smartphone or your tablet."

Most enterprises are "in the early adopter/proof of concept period" at the moment, Weinstein says. They're either just talking about deploying videoconferencing systems on smartphones or tablets or they're testing them before rolling them out to their user base. The network, the devices, and the videoconferencing software are only going to improve in the next 12 to 18 months, he notes, spurring widespread adoption.

Damaka: Multi-Party Videoconferencing on Multiple Devices

One of the more noteworthy recent introductions comes from Damaka, based in Richardson, Texas. Damaka offers a multi-party, peer-to-peer videoconferencing platform, Amadeo, that works on a variety of devices, such as the iPhone 3G and 3GS and iPhone 4; the HTC Evo 4G; and iPads; as well as on PCs and Macs. (Because the iPad lacks a camera, users can only participate in videoconferencing sessions by watching video streams of other participants. The iPad's built-in microphone allows users to communicate in these sessions by voice, however.)

Damaka "understands that people want to communicate in video over multiple devices and networks," notes Weinstein. "They don't want to be limited to, say, only talking to other iPhone 4 users over Wi-Fi," which is the current limitation of Apple's FaceTime technology.

In addition, Damaka's Amadeo platform includes desktop sharing, instant messaging, presence, zooming and panning, and a technology called Sweeping, which enables users to transfer a live session to another device, such as a desktop computer, without interruption, the company says. Users can toggle between the front and rear cameras on an iPhone 4, too.

Multi-party video chat means that up to four participants can be in a videoconference at one time, according to a Damaka spokesperson. Amadeo is available to enterprises for about $25 to $50 monthly per endpoint, depending upon the size of the deployment.

Other Videoconferencing Tools for Smartphones and Tablets

* Apple FaceTime on iPhone 4. As previously mentioned, the iPhone 4 comes with a built-in app called FaceTime that enables video chat using either the phone's front- or rear-facing cameras. (The front camera is VGA quality; the rear can record 720p HD video.) The Wi-Fi-only limitation helps ensure better quality calls on either end but limits the scenarios in which FaceTime can be used.

* Qik Video Chat is a videoconferencing app currently available for Sprint's HTC Evo 4G smartphone, "with more phones coming soon," according to Qik's website. The Qik app lets you use the front or back camera for video streaming, and users can send video mail to any recipient.

* Samsung Epic 4G smartphone on Sprint includes a forward-facing VGA camera for videoconferencing.

* Cisco's Cius tablet. Announced in late June, Cisco's Android OS-based Cius tablet will include a front-facing 720p HD webcam for video communications and a rear-facing VGA-quality video/still camera. The tablet, expected to be available in early 2011, is aimed at business and enterprise users (vs. the consumer market focus of Apple's iPad). A docking/recharging station, which resembles a Cisco IP phone, will be included with the device.

Cius will have a seven-inch display, plus Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 3G wireless connectivity. Plans are for the Cius to integrate with Cisco collaboration software, including WebEx. Cisco also announced a Cius software development kit (SDK), to enable third-party app development for the tablet.

* Research in Motion is reportedly working on a BlackBerry tablet, known as the 'BlackPad,' which is said to be designed as a companion to a BlackBerry smartphone. The tablet will reportedly be introduced in November, according to Bloomberg, and feature front- and back-facing cameras for videoconferencing.

* Dell Streak. Dell's Android OS-based entry into the tablet market includes a VGA front-facing camera for video conferencing. The Streak has a 5-inch touchscreen, smaller than most other tablets. (The iPad, by comparison, has a 9.7-inch screen.) The Streak is available for $300 with a two-year contract from AT&T Wireless or $550 without a contract.

* Skype is the standard for consumer video chat on computers. But the company faces some roadblocks in bringing videoconferencing to smartphones and tablets, blocked by wireless carriers and phone manufacturers seeking to limit Skype's video capabilities in favor of advancing their own systems. Skype users can make and receive audio calls on an iPhone, for instance, but not video calls. However, Skype promises that its Android mobile app will allow mobile video calling sometime this year, according to Engadget.

James A. Martin has written about mobile technology since the mid 1990s and is the author of the Traveler 2.0 blog.


iPhone 4, tablet PC, mobile computing, videoconferencing, Cius