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09 Jun 2021

Well, It's About (Face)Time

There isn’t an insanely great video call service for personal use. Zoom, which became the de facto standard during the pandemic, was really meant for the enterprise, and it shows in everything from their pricing plans to their UI. To my mind, FaceTime has always come the closest, but certain limitations have forced me into Zoom, Google Meet, etc. when video chatting with family and friends over the course of the pandemic this past year.

These are the three primary limitations I’ve run into:

This year’s update to FaceTime feels like the team went heads down during the pandemic, dug in, and determined to make it an all around viable option for personal video calls. In doing so, they’ve addressed each of these three limitations.

First, FaceTime will now be available in the browser, making it an option for people outside the Apple ecosystem. Steve Jobs famously promised that FaceTime would be made an open standard 11 years ago, much to the surprise of not only the audience at WWDC 2010, but also to FaceTime’s own engineers! While this year’s update still doesn’t make FaceTime an open standard, it does bring it to all major platforms (via the Web). Presumably this addresses the primary goal Jobs had in mind when he shot from the hip on stage so many years ago.

Second, users will be able to create a link to an upcoming FaceTime, which makes it possible to schedule and share a call in advance. And third, Apple’s adding a standard grid view to FaceTime calls, which looks a lot more practical for doing calls with a large number of people: everyone remains fixed in the same position on the screen for the duration of the call.

None of these features are novel. All major video call services offer multiplatform support, URL’s to upcoming calls, and grid view. But bringing these features to FaceTime is still notable. It takes FaceTime from something that works great for certain use cases to something that can work great for all use cases. At least that’s what I hope will happen… the ingredients are finally all here; now Apple just needs to actually deliver on them. 1

Today’s announcement isn’t limited just to laying a better foundation though. There’s some really cool, novel features that I’m eager to try out too.

Portrait Mode is the marquee feature, at least for me. It squarely solves two things that are always top of mind when I join a video call: I want to look my best and I want my background to be nice. Zoom’s virtual backgrounds, which completely replace your actual background with a photo of something like the Golden Gate Bridge, are too superficial and distracting for my taste. And while apps like Webex offer “Background Blur”, it’s janky. The blur opacity often isn’t quite right and the edge detection on the subject (me!) is often flakey, doing weird things like cutting off my arms when I gesture with my hands.

Apple’s deep expertise and history with Portrait Mode from all their camera work leaves me optimistic that this will work great in FaceTime. I hope it brings out good lighting and features on my face and pleasantly blurs everything that’s behind me. I’d love the blur to leave everyone else with a sense of the space but not the specifics. We’ll see how it performs in practice, but the demo looked great.

Unsurprisingly, the product marketing is superior to the competitors here too. Webex’s “Background Blur” sounds like I’m hiding something; Apple’s “Portrait Mode” sounds like I’m presenting my best self. Nice.

Voice Isolation eliminates background noise so that you can hear the speaker clearly. Apple did a cute demo where a kid is playing with a leaf blower in the background. It sounds like a tornado until Voice Isolation comes on, after which the speaker’s voice becomes crystal clear. 2

Spatial Audio makes it sound like the audio is coming from wherever in the grid the speaker is located. Will this really make a difference for making conversations feel more natural? I have no idea, but I’m glad that Apple is experimenting with things to help reduce the cognitive dissonance of hanging out virtually. 3

And then there’s SharePlay, which lets you sync music and movies with the other members of your FaceTime call. I would have loved this when I was in a long distance relationship; at the time the state of the art was “One, two, three… play!” Woe unto the person who gets up to fetch a snack. There’s a slew of dead (and typically illicit) apps that have tried to solve this through something like a browser extension. None of them possessed both the deep integration into the platform and the partnerships with the content providers that are required in order to really do this right. But Apple does; that’s the power of them fully owning their platform in action.4

I can’t help but feel a little bit of irony in Apple announcing all of these phenomenal video calling features right as we are coming out of the pandemic. And I’m sure they would have liked to ship these features sooner, when we all so desperately needed them, too! But my guess is that even if they were willing to break rank with WWDC and ship early, they wouldn’t have been ready to. Even now, FaceTime engineers are probably frantically scrambling to get all of this stuff ready for the Fall.

Regardless, it’s (obviously, without question, times 1000) a great thing that we’re coming out of the pandemic, and we must of course be sensitive to the fact that the same can’t be said for everyone, everywhere. And while we may no longer need these features quite so desperately, remote work and virtual socializing are here to stay. I just hope that Apple’s commitment to making FaceTime insanely great is too.

  1. I’m most worried about the multiplatform support and sharing/joining flows. Apple has a history of leaving things they bring to other ecosystems buggy or half-baked, and Apple’s cut at collaboration (Exhibit A: shared Apple Notes) tends to be a bit clunky as well. 

  2. Sadly, this is actually a real use case for me… ah, the dulcet tones of suburbia. 

  3. One thing the pandemic has demonstrated is that different social dynamics call for different types of video calling software. The demands of a one-way presentation are very different than that of a virtual happy hour… I imagine there will continue to be lots of different flavors of video calling apps cropping up, but baking something like Spatial Audio into FaceTime seems like a nice touch that is useful in all circumstances. 

  4. They’ve announced support for major streaming services like HBO Max in addition to their own Apple TV and Apple Music offerings, but Netflix and Spotify were notably missing…