This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY
On July 6, 2011, Facebook and Skype (News - Alert) partnered to launch video calling on Facebook. This was a big step forward for video calling over the Internet, but certainly not its first step. Skype has supported video calling for many years. Indeed, Skype users make 300 million minutes of video calling each day, and 43 percent of the Skype-to-Skype calls in the first half of 2011 included video. At peak times, approximately half a million simultaneous video calls are made on Skype, with more than four thousand hours of video, on average, being transmitted every minute. That is a lot of video.
Yet, some of the feedback coming out of the Facebook (News - Alert)/Skype video calling launch declared that it would never take off. The problem, they claimed, is that users just don’t want to make video calls. For example, one writer from the International Business Times said, “It probably won't be ubiquitous, however, because it's just too intrusive and demanding compared to text communication.” Another writer from 365online wrote, “Or perhaps we'll find that, video chat is a nice feature to use every once and a while... with some people... on days you're fully dressed... and are in a tidy room with nice back-lighting, but isn't really a killer feature at all.”
Are they right? Will video calling become mainstream, or will it disappear as a fad?
The answer is: This is the wrong question to ask.
All too often in our industry, we look at technologies in black-or-white terms. Every now and then, there is a meme as to whether chat will kill e-mail, whether video will kill voice, or whether SMS is dead. This talk misses a very important point: Different communications modalities are appropriate choices for different types of conversations.
An interesting way to think about this is to segment the communications landscape by the type of communications experience a person is trying to have. One aspect of this segmentation to consider is the relationship the other person has with you. Are they very close to you (e.g., your mother, sister or best friend), part of a wider circle of family and friends (e.g., your cousin that you call every once in a while, or a friend you play golf with every second Saturday), or are they a functional contact that you call for a specific purpose (e.g., the pizza delivery guy or a work colleague)? Another aspect of this segmentation is the distance between you. You can communicate with someone nearby, like your neighbor, or with someone far away, like an uncle who lives across the country. Finally, you can segment communications experiences by their content. Are they emotional calls (e.g., discussing girlfriend problems), transactional calls (e.g., ordering a pizza) or casual calls (e.g., discussing the movie you just saw)? Certainly, there are other ways to segment communications experiences, but this three-dimensional model captures the answers to the most important questions: who, where and why.
People have a large range of choices when it comes to communicating – face-to-face, landline phones, mobile phones, e-mail, instant messaging, texting and, of course, voice and video over IP. There are even more exotic modalities like push-to-talk. For each segment of the communications experience, some modalities are more appropriate than others. For example, casual communications with a wide circle of friends and family is a great match for texting or instant messaging, though voice and even video calling can also work here. On the other hand, emotional conversations with close contacts that are far away are an ideal match for video calls, and, in fact, represent one of the most common use cases that Skype sees. Because the content of the conversation is emotional, the extra non-verbal information that video conveys is important. Furthermore, because these calls involve close contacts, people have a familiarity with reading the emotions of the person on the other end, and video becomes even more valuable.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, transactional calls with a functional contact nearby (e.g., ordering that pizza for dinner) get little added benefit from video. These kinds of experiences are short and frequently occur with people you don’t know. Since there is little to no emotion involved, video adds less value. Since video usually requires some time to setup, it can even reduce the effectiveness of calls like this, where the purpose is to accomplish the task quickly and then exit the conversation. This is why push-to-talk has found a niche for this segment of the communications experience matrix – it helps reduce the time required to perform the transaction.
With this understanding in hand, it is clear that the success of video is best measured by evaluating its uptake in the communications segments where it actually applies. In simple business terms, you judge a product by its penetration in its addressable market. Only a subset of the experience matrix is really addressable by video. That doesn’t make video a failure any more than one can judge texting a failure, just because people still call their parents on the phone every weekend.
As they say, the right tool for the right job.
Jonathan Rosenberg is chief technology strategist at Skype (www.skype.com).
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Edited by Stefania Viscusi