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June 10, 2008

How video didn’t kill the audio star

GLOBAL – I don’t know for certain how many video-calling capable 3G phones I’ve had, but I know for sure I’ve never actually made a video call on any of them. People admonished Nokia for not including video calling in its first ever 3G device (which in itself was hardly a show-stopping product), but then perhaps the teardrop shape had some level of irony in there.

So why hasn’t video calling taken off? Engadget picked up on a comment made by a Nokia spokesperson who said it was to do with the angle which the device is held simply doesn’t show the caller in a very flattering way. And it’s kind of true, I have no desire to see up my own nose, much less anyone else’s. And, I wouldn’t wish the contents of my nostrils to be displayed to anyone. But is this the real reason? I doubt it.

Talking to Charlie, he reckons it’s about mobility and video simply not being something you do on the move. Sure, our mobiles are all about untethering the physical hooks which kept our conversations in situ (cables) and allowing us to roam freely as we ponder and dictate to someone on the other end of the line. That very mobility makes video calling a bit of a non-starter, given that you’d literally have to stop to make a call. The only difference to 20 years ago being that you could stop anywhere. But still, it doesn’t quite sit well with me.

When 3G first launched in the UK a guy who was working on the project told me about someone he’d observed in Italy just the week before. 3G and video calling had just launched there and sitting in a coffee shop he noticed the pre-call-answering routine his neighbour on the next table went through before taking a call. Central to the routine was the straightening of his hair and putting on his sunglasses. The guy was actually preening himself to take a call.

I’m not one to normally generalise but I’m going to make an exception. I do look at Italians as purveyors of style and grace and (mostly) people who are impeccably turned out and care greatly about their appearance. All of which I most definitely am not. And that’s when it struck for me. In most countries, video calling is never going to take off. Ever. Why? We don’t (as users) want it to.

It isn’t about mobility, or how flattering the camera does or doesn’t make you look, it’s because people simply don’t feel comfortable doing it. Not yet at least. Despite living in a generation of wannabe celebrity and a culture of “I’d-do-anything-to-be-on-TV” it doesn’t follow that people have a desire to show themselves off at any given opportunity. Particularly if there’s someone on the other end of the line.

Will this ever change? I don’t know. But for now, my calls will remain strictly audio only.