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Just A Thought
by Vern Seward

Can iChat AV & iSight Make Developers See?
July 28th, 2003

Chatless In Florida

I was never really a big fan of iChat, Apple's instant messenger app. The reason is actually quite simple: It wasn't enough to bother with.

By not enough, I mean that while it could perform the basic functions of any instant messenger, iChat had no clear advantage over AOL's messenger. Worse, it could not accept messages from other chat services like ICQ and Yahoo. Heck, I use Fire because it can accept messages from other services, which reduced the clutter on my already cluttered desktop. So, why bother?

There wasn't anything special about iChat, and oddly, there wasn't really anything special about other chat apps either. I use Fire but it only provides the basic functions for chatting. If you look at the state of chat app development for XP you'd find voice chatters and collaboration tools galore. Nobody seemed be interested in bringing cool apps to OS X.

Eh? What Was That?

When Steve Jobs offered up a new iChat during the World Wide Developer's Conference, I didn't get too excited. I mean, it was cool and all to have instant messaging, voice chat, and video conferencing in one neat package, but big deal. I was far more interested in learning about the G5s and Panther. Besides, I have a pretty decent voice chatter in NetFone, which is small, easy to use, requires low bandwidth, and works with the Windows version of the app.

To be honest, I was really scratching my head over why Apple bothered with video conferencing. Video conferencing is more than just grandma and your new born smiling toothlessly back at each other, or a fix for those addicted to high-tech voyeurism. When you turn on the camera you are inviting the person on the other end into your home, you are giving the world a peek at your sanctum sanctorium one person at a time. I don't mind subjecting myself to the abject horror that is my desk on a daily basis, but I certainly wouldn't put anyone else through such stress, even remotely.

Another thing about the video in video conferencing is that once you see the other person, and he or she sees you, then what? If we keep adult fantasies out of this, there isn't a whole lot that video can bring to a normal phone conversation, which is probably why video phones have been such poor sellers. Even couples so deeply in love that they can't stand to be out of eye-shot of each other for longer than it takes to grab a cold one from the fridge will get bored eyeballing each other after a time. I mean, it's just not practical.

When I talk on the phone with my sister, I like to walk around. Often I'll stroll around outside my house talking animatedly; hands waving (I wear an earphone with a boom mic, so both hands are free), laughing and just having a good ol' time. While it would be nice to see my sister every so often, and I hope she feels the same way about me, I think I'd enjoy my conversations with her much less if I was forced to sit in front of some camera.

Speaking of cameras, I was also left wondering after seeing iSight announced. A camera? It just wasn't making much sense to me. From the streamed video I could tell that iSight was cool looking and, from the specs I found at, I could see that the camera had some nice features, but big friggin' deal! It's a camera that goes with the video conferencing, and I've established my wariness of that.

I Can Hear! It's A Miracle!

Then I downloaded iChat AV...

iChat is to iChat AV as a 98 pound weakling is to The Incredible Hulk. OK, maybe that's a bit much, after all, it is still just beta, but, baby, what a beta!

iChat AV has all of the functions and features that I came to ignore in iChat, but Apple screwed on a voice chat feature that is so easy to use it makes you wonder why they hadn't done it sooner. The hardest part about setting up the voice chat is getting a usable microphone. I suggest one of those headphones with the boom-mic. Works great.

Once you've got a way to talk to people, the next hardest thing is finding someone to talk to, and believe me, you'll want to talk just to try iChat AV out. Once you do make a voice chat connection you'll want to do it again. It's that addictive.

You can tell if others in your buddy list have voice chat capability because a phone icon will appear next to their name. If they are online just click on the phone icon and wait for the connection to complete. No IP addresses to put in, no funky settings to play with, just click, wait, and talk. It's actually easier than using your phone (and cheaper).

What iChat AV can't do, at least not yet, is match your phone in sound quality, but it's not bad. The sound really depends on the quality of the equipment being used. For instance, whenever I talk to my editor, Bryan, I find that his voice will start sounding like he's slowing stuffing socks into his mouth. We discovered that if he hits the mute button about once a minute then we can have a reasonable conversation. (I hope the socks are clean, Bryan.) I suspect Apple will come out with a list of compatible mics if it really makes a difference in the final release of iChat AV. I've also found that futzing with the bandwidth settings in the Preference Panel can help.

I Only Have iSight For You

Well, after having so much fun with iChat AV I decided to drop by my local, but oh-so-much smaller than the one in Chicago, Apple Store to check out iSight. I figured that if iChat AV was so cool, iSight must be awesome.

It is.

There were several iSight camera set up around the store on Macs with iChat AV running. If you have one of these cameras then you already know how cool it is. If you don't have one, then go to your local Apple retailer and take a gander. If you are on a budget and don't intend to buy one please leave your checkbook and credit cards at home.

iSight is designed to sit on top of your monitor. Normally you'd think that where you place a camera is no big deal until you realize that, by placing the camera on your desk top instead of on the monitor, you are giving your reviewer a grand view of your nose hair. Now, do you want people to think of you and think, "Nose hair"? I think Jonathan Ive was thinking that when he was designing iSight.

Another bit of iSight coolness is how good it makes you look. OK, it won't make you look like Marilyn Monroe if you happen to look like Marilyn Manson, but iSight will deliver the best picture possible with whatever subject it has to work with.

Method In The Madness

Still, though iChat AV is slick and iSight is a sight to behold, why would Apple bother with such things?

I believe I get it now, and I have a theory why Apple did iSight and iChat AV.

Apple, seldom a company to half-ass anything, decided that if vendors were too timid to step up to the plate and develop something so deceptively simple as iChat AV, then Apple would. It's been over 2 years since OS X hit the streets and the only voice over IP (VoIP) application we've had until now is the above mentioned NetFone, which is a great little app, but it is built to work in a Windows oriented environment where futzing around with settings are the norm instead of the exception.

The status of video conferencing applications was even worse, with on again, off again support from vendors with products on the PC platform.

It could be that Steve Jobs, feeling frustrated with the slow pace of app development in general on OS X, gathered his troops together and said, "OK, boys and girls, we need something to invigorate OS X application development. Pick an application that is high profile but won't step on the toes of any of the big players. We need to show people just how easy it is to come up with a cool app from beginning to end, the whole 9 yards."

Probably some little newly hired programmer/trash collector timidly raised his hand and said, "Um, Mr. Jobs, sir, um, how about voice chat? That's easy and hardly anybody's doing it in OS X. Um, and we could, like, make it easy to use, and, like maybe put in a video!"

Jobs likely stared at the little guy for a few minutes, watching the poor man squirm and sweat under the heat of his gaze, then smiled. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

If a vendor wishes to make a better conferencing package, Apple has left plenty of room for improvements; white-boarding, mutliple calls (likely to appear in the final version of iChat AV), file collaboration, and more could be put together in a nice package. All Apple has done with iSight and iChat AV is to show vendors the way to make decent OS X app; Jobs and crew showed them how easy it is to do and chose the WWDC to make the point.

Looking at iSight and iChat AV one might get the wrong impression about Apple's intentions. They may look at iSight and iChat AV, Safari, and the iLife apps and say the same thing that Microsoft said when it announce that it would stop development on the Apple version of Internet Explorer; that Apple is the best group to design and develop peripherals and applications for the Mac, and so they need not bother, but that's a short-sighted look. If one took a look at Apple's free apps they would see that while they are great for what they do, they don't do it all. There's plenty of room for great applications on the Mac and plenty of opportunity to make money.

I just hope that vendors see the light and answer the call.

is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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