Group Video Chat Woes

Monday, September 22, 2014

I miss iChat video

There are a plethora of video chat options available to us today. A brief (but incomplete) list:

  • Facebook Messenger

  • Skype

  • Google Hangouts

  • FaceTime

The common thread running between these options: none of them have good group video chat.

What do I mean by good video chat?

I want a service where I can see who’s online easily, and easily start a video chat with them. This means that I (or they) don’t have to go through an annoying installation process, or guess as whether they’re available for a video call.

I want a service where while in a chat, if I want to make it a group chat, I can look at a list of online people, and add them seamlessly into the current chat. No real distinctions between a normal two person or three person or four person chat.

I want a service where most of my friends are also on this service.

That’s all. So far, none of the big four meet all three of these criteria.

Where we are

FaceTime is strictly two person. Can’t even get a group video chat going.

Hangouts has decent video chat. It is decently easy to start a video chat, and it is decently easy to start a group chat and add and remove members. I say decently because it’s also quite buggy at times and requires Chrome for best experience. However, Hangouts loses a lot of points for the interface. Give me three rectangles on my screen showing me people I’m talking to, not a super spastic display of whoever is talking.

Skype has a paid tier to enable group chat, although only one person needs to have it. Biggest problem with Skype is that most people don’t have it logged on all the time.

Facebook Messenger is also strictly two person.

Where we were

The interesting thing is, this is actually a regression. We used to have great, dead simple, beautiful group video chat. Anyone who used iChat about 10 years ago could start 2-4 person video chats with their AIM contacts.

Dead simple to start a chat. Dead simple to add members. And everyone used AIM. It used to be so good that people bought iMacs just for iChat. Seriously.

Why isn’t this available anymore? How did this experience deteriorate so badly? Who can fix this?

Why is it broken

Back in the day, there used to be one dominant service for real IMAOL Instant Messenger. Wasn’t the greatest, or the most flashy, but pretty much everyone was on it. The great thing about AIM was that there was a shockingly vibrant community around it — a ton of IM clients were built around AIM (iChat, Meebo, etc) and therefore you could easily leverage the AIM network to offer additional services.

The equivalent of AIM today is Facebook Messenger. Messenger, though much better than AIM in many respects, for various reasons has less support than AIM outside of Facebook’s official apps. Messenger does have limited Jabber support, but aside from that you have to use the official Facebook apps to get access to your friends.

Facebook doesn’t care about the old way of chatting. It wants you to ignore online and offline. Video chatting on Facebook is not even a top tier feature. Stickers and the Like button are more important.

The company which made iChat also no longer cares about chat. iChat is dead — iMessages and FaceTime are the new centerpieces of Apple’s communication strategy. Designed primarily for the mobile phone, they don’t allow for group video chat, perhaps because phone screens are too small for three face filled boxes. Although, that’s a tenuous argument as screens grow bigger and bigger.

How to fix it

Each of the four companies is missing just a few things preventing it from becoming the video chat platform I want.

Google needs more people using Hangouts. It also needs Hangouts to have less insane video chat. I think Google has the most pieces in play to make this happen, but I’m not sure if my video chat vision and Google’s align — Google would rather people use Hangouts to video chat with the President. I’m not trying to set up an interactive broadcast here.

Facebook has the network, has the infrastructure, but doesn’t seem to prioritize video chat. They have an straightforward way to enable this as well, although perhaps some engineering work might be necessary.

Apple has the pedigree — they’ve done it before. They also have a large network, although not everyone I want to video chat with has an iPhone or a Mac (it is rather good coverage though). Benefit of a group FaceTime solution would be first party integration with devices — no need for an account or an install, if you have an iDevice, you can use it.

Skype has this all figured out, but nobody uses it. Make the app more lightweight and get rid of the excess, and people might actually give it a go. But then Skype is trying to be so much more than video chat anyways, so I’m not sure they’re so inclined.

We had it and we regressed, we’re still so close, and yet I’m still pessimistic about the chances. I miss good group video chat.