Video chat was once the future. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the video phone was supposed to be an awe-inspiring example of future technology. Well, that future is here — video chat has been with us for many years.
We can now even video chat from almost anywhere thanks to smartphones with data connections. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones have built-in front-facing cameras, so video chat is within reach of practically everyone.
Many people use Skype, so it’s a great option for video-chatting. Skype isn’t only available for Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs — it’s also available for Android phones and tablets, iPhones, iPads, and many other devices. Install Skype, create a user account, and add a friend to your contacts list. Click the Video Call button to initiate a video chat. The process is almost the same with the Skype app on smartphones and tablets.
Facebook offers a Video Calling feature that allows you to initiate video chats with your Facebook friends. This feature is provided by Skype, but it’s limited to your Facebook friends. It may be preferable if you want to initiate a video chat with someone via Facebook’s chat feature.
Google Hangouts is included on Android phones and tablets, so many people will have access to it. Anyone with a free Google account can use Hangouts via their web browser on Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome OS. Google offers iPhone and iPad apps, too. As the successor to the popular Google Talk chat service, Hangouts is widely used. Even someone who doesn’t use Hangouts or Talk probably has a Google account by now.
On the web, Hangouts can be accessed from Gmail or Google+. It has one big advantage over Skype — you can have a video chat with up to 10 people at a time on Hangouts for free, while anything above two people requires you pay for a Skype Premium subscription in Skype.
As another bonus, you can call any number in the US or Canada for free from within Gmail. Skype can call landline phones too, but you’ll have to pay for Skype Premium or for minutes first.
FaceTime is only available on Apple’s own hardware — iPhones, iPads, iPod touches, and Macs. However, if you and the person you want to talk to do have Apple hardware, FaceTime is nicely integrated and fairly easy to use. It isn’t the ideal service for communicating with everyone, as not everyone uses Apple hardware all the time.
Just open the FaceTime app included with your iOS device or Mac, select the person you want to call, and initiate a video call. You’ll see an error if that person hasn’t set up FaceTime with their Apple ID.
Apple promised FaceTime would be an open standard when they announced it back in 2010, but they haven’t mentioned anything about this since. It’s Apple-devices-only for the foreseeable future.
Chat services are only valuable if other people use them. Sure, you could install the open-source Ekiga tool and use SIP to initiate a video chat, but there’s the additional challenge of making your friends use a new service — not to mention the firewall and port-forwarding issues involved with SIP clients. With services like Skype, Hangouts, and FaceTime, there’s already a huge user base out there. Skype is huge — especially among “normal people” who are slow to adopt new technology, many people use Google Talk and Android phones, and there are a huge number of Apple devices out there.
Services like meetings.io try to get around this by offering easy setup of video chats without any user accounts required, but anything that requires you and your friends sign up for a new service has an uphill battle ahead of it.
Video chat services are now basically a commodity — they’re built into popular operating systems and there are many options out there. It also turns out that people don’t want to video chat all the time — in fact, many people have moved away from audio-only phone calls to texting and similar services.
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr