Once cameras became standard equipment on mobile phones, it was only a matter of time before vendors realized that the foundation was there for using image-capture technology to transmit video. It's actually possible that by the time we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the AT&T picture phone shown at the 1964 New York World's Fair, video chat may even be commonplace.
But before that happens, users will have to thread their way through a landscape littered with incompatible options, segmented by carriers, mobile apps, and networks.
Vivox, developer of the VoiceEverywhere voice/video/chat platform, Tuesday acquired Palo Alto, Calif.-based Droplet Technology, for an undisclosed sum. "We're adding Droplet to upgrade the capabilities of our current communications platform," Vivox CEO Rob Seaver told PCWorld. "Mobile video is a highly demanding environment that requires specialized technology. Droplet is optimized to handle mobile video much better than other applications and to reduce the bandwidth demands on a mobile network."
The VoiceEverywhere platform offers voice, video, and text chat capabilities, and is already integrated into multiple gaming and communications applications, Seaver said. He said that the technology is already used by more than 80 million people who want to communicate while playing games from Sony and Nexon or while wandering through the Second Life virtual world. "You can walk up to people and start talking to them," said Seaver, "and if you walk away, their voices will fade."
The technology is also used in T-Mobile's Bobsled application, which runs on iPhones, iPads, and Android phones and lets Facebook users initiate video chats with friends.
Vivox isn't the only player in this arena. Aylus Networks provides a similar platform for voice/video/text chat, and companies such as Oovoo and WeTalk target video-chat capabilities. And those are just the start-ups. There's also Microsoft's acquisition of Skype, which threatens to rewrite the rules of collaboration.
A big problem for consumers is that the voice/video/text chat space is highly fragmented. Some applications only work with certain platforms (for instance, Fringland with Android). Some work only with tablets (take Polycom's meeting application for iPads and Android tablets). Some are targeting group video, such as Google Hangouts and AnyMeeting). That doesn't even begin to factor in the gaming community.
In fact, the whole market is in a state of flux. "Video chat has always been a PC-to-PC solution, which has kept it from being as automatic as a phone call," said IDC Senior Reseach Analyst Irene Berlinsky in a video presentation last summer. "But now it's going to mobile phones and to tablets." It's also going to TV, she said, citing a Skype-Comcast partnership that would "offer remote workers the opportunity to collaborate over video on a large screen that's much cheaper even than scaled-down telepresence options.
There's also a question of where it will work. Berlinsky said that because video chat over mobile networks will eat up a lot of data, it's more likely to be used over Wi-Fi. But that's where Seaver says Droplet's video optimization capability will help Vivox compete, because it can "cap the bandwidth use at a level that's appropriate for conditions on the network and still provide a great quality image."
He insisted that having a platform, rather than just an application, will boost Vivox's differentiation and its ability to survive any forthcoming consolidation. "The secret is not just having a range of ways to communicate," Seaver says. "The secret is having a communications platform that will help users talk to who they want, when they want, in the mode they want on any device."