When is Apple going to pay FaceTime the attention it deserves?

iPad Air Facetime

The other day I overheard a woman at the coffee shop spiritedly conversing on FaceTime with what I can only presume was her mother. The topic of discussion had been the daughter’s holiday trip, and her mom said something that struck a chord with me: why can’t you show me the photos on here? This got me thinking (at which point I stopped listening in, promised). Since its inception, FaceTime has received dreadfully little attention from Apple. The introduction of FaceTime Audio aside, the service practically makes for an absolute freeze-up in an otherwise constantly forward moving software environment.

As consumers, we have become used to companies spending more resources and time on pet projects of theirs and conversely less on comparably idle services, but what is astonishing is that this analogy does not explain the ongoing neglect of FaceTime. Because for all its faults and plainness, FaceTime is tremendously popular. For reasons only known to the Cupertino giant however, it does barely show in the application’s development. To add insult to injury, the lackluster state is likely to persist for yet another year until the next big software update for iOS rolls in. Never mind the fact this means forever in industry years, but it’s even worse because FaceTime is already adrift of the competition.

With that said, it is time for Apple to start play catch-up and resuscitate the service. Since the coffee shop encounter, I have been mulling over how Apple could ramp up the offering realistically in the near future. Here is what I believe is feasible and crucial for FaceTime to implement within the next year:

When it comes to Apple, traditionally a brief glance back at previous years serves as a reliable indicator of what lies ahead for the company. Time and time again they have proven to be quite habitual and there is no evidence that leads me to believe it would be different in the case of FaceTime. If we revisit the latest discernible changes for FaceTime (Picture in picture in iOS 9, FaceTime Audio in iOS 7), it is sensible to believe that any game-changing feature for the service would be held back until iOS 11. Which is not to say that there is no chance of a slightly less significant update gracing us before autumn of next year.

In fact, tradition dictates that between March and June (iOS 8.4 and Apple Music or iOS 9.3 and Night Shift), a point three or point four update is going to drop, bringing along all sorts of new goodies for our devices. So let’s size up these two potential updates in 2017 and place emphasis on what they ought to deliver in order to make FaceTime a more immersive and customizable experience.

iOS 10.4

ios7 slide keynote facetime audio

Starting it off chronologically, we will operate on the assumption that iOS 10.4 is going to be the software update to introduce a host of new features and refinements to the existing applications in early 2017. Provided FaceTime is one of those apps finally receiving some love, no more than three (timely) practicable additions would suffice to put the service back on the right track: manually selecting video quality, the introduction of Facebook-like live stickers (sorry in advance) and enhanced Handoff capabilities.

Video quality is a non-issue to some, but for people either living with poor Wi-Fi or FaceTiming on data plans, it is a big deal. Many video streaming services offer a little lever to adjust the video output quality, ranging from ‘Best Available’ (which is what FaceTime does) to higher Mb/s and lower Kb/s rates. As a frequent user of FaceTime, I would appreciate a setting like that on my screen, as I can recall countless scenarios where I refrained from video calling a friend or relative on the road simply because it eats up your data so fast. If I could throttle the data artificially by restraining the streaming quality, that would be pretty exciting. I would also imagine that in many instances selecting a lower streaming rate would actually smoothen a stuttering but otherwise crisp video call.

This one is quite divisive but with iOS 10, Apple has gone all in on iMessage gimmicks (like it or not) – so why stop now? Particularly for the younger segments of users, one or two buttons to trigger on-screen effects during the video chat (think Facebook’s or Periscope’s live video stickers) would certainly make the product a whole lot more enticing. I’m not completely put off by colorful hearts or other icons swamping the screen and it would be a complementary outlet to also express yourself non-verbally.

Handoff and Continuity are great concepts, no question about it, but they do not live up to their promise in places where it’s needed most. When I take a FaceTime call on the way home on my iPhone and walk into the apartment, where is my option to transfer the call to my couch iPad? You would think the feature was already in place considering how Handoff has been showered with praise by Apple – but it is not.

iOS 11

ipad iphone ios9 facetime promo

Now, anyone can dream up far-fetched fantasies for an upgrade that is still such a long way off. What’s more important than that is to marry the fancy with the needful, and what Apple needs to do urgently is address the blatant shortcomings and clear competitive gap between FaceTime and the likes of Skype or Google Hangouts. Thusly, the two most significant (and reasonable) changes I would like to see materialize with iOS 11 are group video chat functionality and the ability to display photos stored locally on your device inside the chat.

There’s a reason the lion’s share of businesses use Skype. And that is for the simple but compelling fact that the application is superior in facilitating and handling multiple callers in one session. FaceTime is painfully late to the party (they haven’t even shown up, to run with the metaphor) and many of us have clamored for group chat functionality long before iOS 10, 9 or even 8 was unveiled. If not finally realized in iOS 11, Apple have seriously gotten their priorities wrong on this one.

To round off the coffee shop anecdote, being able to show your chat partner photos from your device would be such an intuitive way to enrich a conversation. And it makes perfect sense. FaceTime is a visual medium, its entire backbone is the notion that people like to receive visual stimuli when we talk. In other words, when I call my parents to catch up on their recent Hawaii holiday, isn’t it terribly counterintuitive that they have to send photos for viewing through an external app such as iMessage? The service would enormously benefit from an on-screen button that links to your photo library, from where any photo touched would be mirrored (= sent temporarily) to the receiver’s device.

And just like that we have come to the end of my list. Some of these items I would call predictions, some of them wishes. What’s certain is that the year ahead will show if Apple are sensitive to their users with regard to FaceTime and willing to appreciably up the ante. They certainly need to act soon if they don’t want to irreversibly lose more users and businesses to the competition.

Have anything to add to my list? Comment below!