The Blind Spot in Apple’s Brilliant iSight

Every once in a while you get a taste of what the Internet would be like if it were left to a few private enterprises. One glaring example is the deplorable state of instant messaging, which, in part because of balkanization, has failed to reach the level of popularity enjoyed by plain old e-mail. Another is the paucity of high-speed DSL and cable Internet connections, which demonstrates how major service providers create islands of connectivity. It seems that private enterprises, left to their own devices, have a tough time supporting the ubiquitous and open connectivity that has been the hallmark of the government-funded Internet throughout its 30-year history.

Chat’s ruinous state is particularly unfortunate, for it threatens to set back promising initiatives that might use this technology as a foundation. In particular, lack of ubiquity in instant messaging could hobble Apple Computer’s latest breakthrough product, a camera and software package for videoconferencing that is very good.

Released last month, Apple’s iSight, which retails for US$149.95, is a terrific little video camera that hooks up to a Macintosh via Firewire and delivers excellent real-time videoconferencing over the Internet when used over a broadband cable connection. In conjunction with a new multimedia version of Apple’s iChat software, iSight delivers fluid motion and crisp images, and it also can be used without video as a form of Internet phone calling. I’ve been testing iSight and iChat A/V, as the program is called, for about a week with various friends and family members. The overall effect is powerful.

Hallmark Ease of Use

The whole setup has the kind of ease-of-use you’d expect from Apple. As soon as you plug iSight into a Firewire port, the iChat software loads, and you need only click on a buddy-list entry to “dial up” an interlocutor. If you’re doing a video chat, a window appears showing the live feed from your correspondent’s iSight camera, and you can see how you appear to him or her in a miniature picture-in-picture frame. Even when blown up to occupy all of a 17-inch monitor, iSight delivers very fine real-time video. Videoconferences traditionally have looked like something transmitted from a hidden bunker, with participants acquiring deep shadows and a ghastly sallow tint. In contrast, iSight performs color and light balancing, along with autofocus, so one’s appearance is quite palatable, even with five-o’clock shadow.

Within this well-polished program, however, a few things could be touched up. IChat lets you send files by dragging them from the desktop and dropping them onto the text chat window, but in one session I repeatedly received error messages from the AOL server saying it could not send the file. Also, iChat won’t let you turn off the window-in-window feature when you don’t feel like seeing your own mug. And the program has to be running on your machine for someone to call you; I’d like to see some capability for notification even when iChat is not running. It would be nice, too, to be able to look up other AIM and .Mac buddies from within the program.

AIM, .Mac or Nothing

Still, that’s all very minor, and Apple has proved itself quick to fix bugs and improve features. The only real problem with the product is that it rests on the extremely slender shoulders of AOL instant messaging (AIM) and Apple’s .Mac service. Both networks restrict chat to other members of those two services. Membership is not prohibitively expensive, as AOL’s messaging service can be used for free and .Mac costs only $8 per month, a bargain considering all the other things you get along with it. If you don’t want to buy a .Mac account, Apple will still provide you with a free iChat account; likewise, iChat accounts obtained through .Mac’s 60-day trial can be kept for free after the trial period expires.

You soon realize, though, that having video chats with friends requires drafting everyone into establishing an account with one of the two services, which is rather like asking everyone you meet at a barbeque or business meeting to sign up with Verizon or AT&T so you can call them on the phone. Or like telling your friends to get a second e-mail account so you can send them stuff. Would you really want to compel colleagues who are on Yahoo! Messenger to get a second account for the sake of video chat? Apple touts the benefit of communicating with 150 million strangers on AOL. Who cares, if they’re not the five or six people with whom you really want to communicate?

Where’s the Real Barrier?

Moreover, as far as I can tell, there is no technological reason why the iSight and iChatAV combination would not work just fine if it were opened up to include members of Yahoo! Messenger, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger and the open-source Jabber program.

I’ve remarked before on the problem of hooking up these networks, and, to its credit, Apple insists it is “very interested” in interconnecting with other services. In general, though, it seems there is little interest within the industry as a whole. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a consortium that recommends technology to the Internet community, has been working for more than five years to make IM networks compatible. This past June, the editor of the organization’s proposal issued a particularly damning e-mail to his colleagues, noting that nothing had been done for much of 2002 and 2003. “In reality, for the last 18 months, the real working group activity has been a dialogue among 4 to 5 people, with very few other participants,” he said.

IChat and iSight demonstrate what is possible when teleconferencing is done well. They work so well that I would consider buying five or six cameras to give to friends and family. However, asking those folks to change IM networks, or to limit their choice to one of only two networks, is ridiculous. Chat and instant messaging should be like e-mail, with one account that lets you reach anyone in the world, rather than being a private club. Having designed a terrific product, it’s in Apple’s interest to open the gates and let people on other networks join in the fun.

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