Today Apple announced the availability of a beta (i.e. pre-release, friendly user) version of their “facetime” app for the Mac. For those who haven’t heard of it, facetime is a feature that comes built into the iPhone 4, which lets you setup video calls, i.e. you see as well as speak to the other party and vice versa.
Over the past fifty years or so, many companies have tried and failed to introduce a video telephone. Computer-to-computer video calling has been available recently via Skype, Google Talk and other applications. The iPhone 4 added video calling on a cell phone, which is very cool but also very limited: you can only make video calls to other iPhone 4 users. The newly announced Mac version of Facetime expands the scope of this feature to include Mac-to-iPhone and Mac-to-Mac, in addition to iPhone-to-iPhone. Still, not everyone has a Mac and not everyone wants to use their computer to make calls so I wouldn’t call this a breakthrough but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
For those who want to try this out, here’s a summary of what I had to do to get it working, as well as a few pitfalls to avoid…
- Download free beta software here.
- After installing the software, start the facetime app. It will prompt you for an email address to register with your apple account. People who want to call you using facetime will use this email address, which makes sense – your computer doesn’t have a phone number, per se. This step will entail the usual round trip to your inbox, i.e. the service will send you an email, with a link you click on to verify your settings. This is Apple’s way of making sure the email address you provided is accurate.
- After registering my email address, I tried to make a call to my wife’s iPhone 4. I didn’t see any options to simply dial a phone number. The software requires you to click on a contact and I had no contact for my wife (!). Adding insult to injury, the software appears to provide no simple option for adding a contact. Realizing the software was accessing my native Mac address book (which explains why it’s empty, I manage all my contacts in gmail) I used the native Address Book app to add a contact for my wife’s iPhone.
- Once I added a contact for my wife, I was able to request a call but all such attempts failed with the message “called number not available for facetime”. Next I tried making a call from my wife’s iPhone to my Mac and found there was no way to specify an email address, only a phone number. Suspecting I needed a newer version of the iPhone software, I upgraded her phone to iOS 4.1 (using iTunes) and that did the trick. After that I was able to select email addresses when making iPhone calls so iOS 4.1 appears to be a requirement in order to call a Mac.
- At this point, I was able to make a video call from iPhone to Mac but I noticed that the incoming phone number was incorrect – it showed the original number assigned to the phone, not the one we ported over from Sprint. Fortunately, the solution was simple: on the iPhone 4, enter Settings->Phone and disable/re-enable the facetime feature. That causes the phone to “re-activate facetime” which causes facetime to adopt the new ported number.
- With that, I was able to initiate bi-directional audio+video calls in both directions with the correct phone number and email address displayed on each end. That’s where I stopped – I haven’t tried Mac-to-Mac calls yet.
After some additional experimentation, I found the Mac side to be a bit flaky (I guess that’s why they call it beta). In particular, I would occasionally get into the ringing state but would be unable to connect the call after answering on either side. A work-around for me was to logout, and then re-login on the Mac side.
Bottom line: nothing revolutionary here (and a mild amount of pain to get everything working) but a small step forward toward cheap, rich, ubiquitous communication technology.