iChat: The iPhone's Next Big Thing

Everyone’s talking about Apple’s somnium apparatus, the still imaginary and much anticipated tablet, and how it will change the print industry just as iPod did the music industry (among other things).

It could happen. It doesn’t take a genius to see that printed paper as a way of delivering information will soon join cave painting, stone carving, and the 8-track tape in media heaven. It’s time for something new, and if Apple doesn’t lead the charge to a new way of offering up that info to an increasingly connected public then someone else will.

A well thought out tablet and a good support system for delivering content would definitely change things. The leaders of the print industry seem to think so as they scramble to get in bed with nearly any technology that promises a path to the hearts and minds, and therefore wallets of the news reading public. You may have heard that Conde Nast, Time Warner, Hearst, and others have bAnnd together to establish a content distribution model. They aren’t the only ones taking action. Barnes and Nobles is offering up the Nook eBook reader that’s based on both LCD and ePaper technology. Not to be out done, now Borders has hooked up with Kobo, an eBook distributor, in an effort to keep from being left behind.

As all of this occurs Apple remains as quiet as granite. All of the supposed leaks point to a tablet, but, as is typical with Apple, we won’t know for sure until someone wearing an Apple logo decides to tell us. (Steve Jobs IS Apple, no logo needed.)

Which leads us to speculate. Something I’m quite fond of doing. I even wager a bit on whether my soothe saying bears fruit.

Well, instead of hypothesizing about about the possibility of an Apple tablet and all that it could do to save the print industry, enhance our lives, reverse global warming, and promote world peace I’d like to prognosticate a bit on the iPhone. If you’re thinking it’s all been done and there’s little else Apple can do to keep their super-phone from being equalled or surpassed by the wannabes then I’d have to disagree with you. Vigorously.

There’s a direction Apple could take its strange smartphone from another planet with powers far beyond those of mortal smartphones, and that new direction could further shake up the mobile phone industry as we know it today. That new direction can be capsulized into one word, which may strike fear in the hearts of every other handset maker: iChat.

Don’t laugh. Hear me out.

Text chats are fine and I use them a lot. What's nice about them is that the recipients of my messages don’t have to respond right away. In fact, they don’t even have to be near their computer. The message just sits there waiting until it gets noticed, as opposed to a phone call, which demands immediate attention. IP text chats don’t use the telcos’ SMS or MMS services, you just need Internet access.

While it is true you can call a person and leave voicemail, to do so you’d still have to go through the phone company’s cumbersome voice system. With an instant message text you type a message and move on. You don’t have to wait for a reply, you’ll be notified when you get one and it’ll just sit there until you decide to read it. iChat or similar apps can offer the same convenience and add bit more; you touch to connect, talk, type, or video yourself, then move on.

On the receiver’s side there would be any combination of iChat sessions waiting for responses, in any of the three medias. You’d see a message pending, touch it and it opens

I wouldn’t be concerned about file sizes sucking up server or phone space, compression techniques have greatly improved and video messages don’t have to be HD to be useful, it just can’t suck.

Where are the phone carriers doing during all of this iChatting? They provide the access to the Internet and will likely charge us dearly for it, but they will have to come onboard because to say that the industry is moving in that direction is like saying an avalanche is moving downhill. Also, while video and voice chats are a step above texting they are one step below phone calls in that the conversation is not in real time, thus it may not be considered in the same league as voice over IP telephony, which makes telcos anxious.

Besides, we already have IM apps available. What’s lacking in those apps is the integration that only Apple can bring to the table.

I know what you’re thinking, “There’s no face facing camera on the iPhone so... wassup with that? I do’t want to become a contortionist to use a video chat session on me phone.”

New hardware is wassup. And new apps that make use of that new hardware. Apple’s iChat may be first online, but you can bet your collection of Wookie dolls that app makers will follow soon after with new and improved apps and services.

And think about this: There is already a huge community of text, voice, and video chatters out there sitting at desk top and laptop computers. iChat would tap into that world and so it would already have a large user base.

Photo courtesy of Gizmodo

Now, let’s add a bit more meat in this stew.

Imagine using a speech recognition software as an interface to iChat. Apple has been dabbling with voice control interfaces and it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t testing the waters to see if people would take a shine to it.

Here’s a scenario we might see in the not too distant future: A woman, let’s call her Ann, is in a rush, she’s running late and must pick up a cake for a birthday party.

Ann checks the time on her iPhone for the forth time in so many minutes and frowns. “I’ll never make it in time,” she says to herself as she throws herself into the driver’s seat of her hybrid car and shuts the door.

She slips her iPhone in its charging dock, starts the car and pulls into traffic. An alert appear on her iPhone. Her friend, Donna, just left her a voice message in iChat. Ann touches the alert window and an iChat session appears and the voice message is played over the car’s audio system.

“Hi Ann, I’m out of my appointment early and I’m near the market where you ordered the cake, do you want me to pick it up?”

Ann smiles. Donna has saved the day again. She touches the iChat window again and the iPhone asks, “Would you like to reply to Donna?”

“Yes,” she replies and a tone let’s her know that the iChat session is ready.

“Hi Donna. I owe you big. Yes. Please pick up the cake and I’ll meet you at the party. I can be 10 minutes early since you’re getting the cake. Thanks again.” She touches the screen to end her recording and iChat sends it on its way.

Another tone from the iPhone sounds and Ann touches the screen. “Percy has left you a video message. Shall I play it?” the iPhone asks.

“Yes. Voice only.”

The screen on the iPhone remains dark and her boyfriend’s voice pipes through the speakers. “Hey Sweets. Just letting you know I did get your dry cleaning. I’m on my way home now, but the traffic is nasty, so I may be a few minutes late. Did you get the cake?” He makes an embellished kissing sound and says, “See ya in a bit.”

Ann smiles and blows a silent kiss back at the phone, which asks, “Would you like to reply to Percy?”


A tone sounds and she starts her reply.

Ann does all of this without taking her eyes off the road and the traffic around her.

It’s true we have a ways to go before that scenario can be realized, but I don’t think we are that far off. Consider that Apple has been dappling with voice interfaces a lot lately. Also consider that Apple seems to insist that -- to borrow a phrase from an old wine commercial -- they will deliver no feature before its time. Apple wants iChat on the iPhone to be great, OK and good enough is not good enough, especially with such stiff competition on its heels.

One final point; if Apple does have a tablet in the product pipeline video and voice chats using it would be huge. Why? Because the bigger screen would allow for multiple video chat session without eyestrain. If the tablets are WiFi only (no data plan through a telco, but I suspect that’s highly unlikely) then iChat would be a slam-dunk.

I have a feeling that iChat could be one of those sleeper features that you never realized you wanted until it’s available, then you wonder why is wasn’t there in the first place.

So, is iChat on the iPhone is the next big thing from Apple? It’s anyone’s guess but I’m willing to bet real American dollars on it. Real. American. Dollars.