Video chat - could it be Facebook's biggest mistake?

Posted by Rob Enderle

Presentation is indisputably a significant factor in how well a product is received by consumers. 

For some reason, as I watched Mark Zuckerberg do a (textbook) bad product launch today, my mind drifted back to a briefing where I predicted, damned accurately, that Netscape would fail a year and a half out. Strangely enough, the Netscape meeting focused on video conferencing as well.

Video chat - could it be Facebook's biggest mistake?I also can't help but recall how Andy Grove considered video conferencing the biggest mistake he ever made while running Intel.

You could say I’ve been involved in some of the largest desktop video conferencing trials ever done.

Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze me how many companies over the years  perceived video as the next big thing in communication - only to be horribly disappointed. So let’s talk about how Facebook blew awesome and the various issues with video communication.

How Not to Present a Feature

It was kind of weird watching the Twitter stream and see how many folks were comparing Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs - but in a bad, bad way. Remember, Jobs once announced a video conferencing service, FaceTime, which had far fewer users than Skype and far less potential to generate more than Facebook.

Then again, it was seen as far more interesting. Part of that is because FaceTime works on mobile devices; whereas Facebook’s video conferencing implementation doesn’t, at least not yet. But most importantly, a good deal of it was how the product was introduced, and a lot of that obviously had to do with presentation skills. 

There is a well-known book titled the "Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs." If you are going to pitch for a consumer product and haven’t read the book, people will likely compare you unfavorably to Steve.

The big difference between what Zuckerberg did and what the book advocates? Quite simply: putting the product center stage and presenting it in the most favorable light with compelling use cases.

You don’t spend most of the talk talking about market trends or strategy; you instead focus on getting people excited about the offering. Now with Zuckerberg, by the time he got to the product, folks were bored out of their seats and they would have had a hard time getting excited about anything at that point.    

Given how much we’ve seen in terms of video products offered by Apple and Google in recent months, Zuckerberg's introduction really made for quite a tough start. It is quite difficult to be awesome if you are just boring the audience.  

The Problems with Video Chat/Conferencing

The list of companies that have attempted to drive video conferencing on both the desktop and in conference rooms is quite long, and actually started with AT&T way back in the mid-1960s. In the 1980s, both IBM and AT&T conducted a number of surveys and discovered people weren't really enamored with the concept of video calling.
 
One of the biggest studies - subsequently done by Apple - also revealed concern over cameras potentially being used to watch individuals without their knowledge. Given the number of virus attacks on PCs, such a concern is certainly reasonable this time around as well.

In the end, however, even if the privacy concern could somehow be satisfactorily addressed, respondents claimed the benefits of a video call weren’t great enough to justify its use over using a phone or remaining in text chat mode. 

If you think about it, how many of us today are live texting when we could easily switch to using the phone in its primary mode voice system and don’t? And this points to a final issue - we don’t really switch modes easily. 

Now, there was once a belief that if you introduced video calling to kids, they would prefer the medium to texting in later years. However, part of what makes texting so popular is it can be done secretly and quietly. Obviously, video calls are on the opposite vector and more likely would be used to live stream something the child was watching than to communicate as a result.  

Or, in other words, texting allows kids to communicate where voice is impractical or forbidden (like in class), while video presents a more limited use case (except for observation). 

Historic Mistakes

At Netscape’s first and last big analyst event, Mark Andreessen got up in front of the audience and dubbed personal video conferencing, rather than collaboration, the near-term future of communications.
He also pledged to take Netscape in that direction. Needless to say, Andreessen's stratecgy didn’t exactly play out well. 

Similarly, Intel's Andy Grove made a massive investment in video conferencing. The result? A huge economic failure that prompted Grove - after his retirement - to list it as one of (actually I think it was the) greatest mistake he ever made.

Yes, video seems so attractive, as it has been a science fiction staple and the next thing in communications for over half a century. Yet, except where it can be forced (like in huge corporations), it hasn’t really stuck or hit the mainstream.

Granted, this is partially because of a massive problem with regard to interoperability. It also illustrates that even with huge financial incentives, video just hasn’t met the expectations of transforming bidirectional communications.

Indeed, it really has only been successful as a one-way medium, (TV, security cameras etc). In fact, this suggests much of the initial use for video chat may be on mobile devices, as people often want to share what they see more than their own image. 

Wrapping Up:

Due to their respective sizes, Facebook and Skype boast a massive advantage over Google in terms of enabling video chat.

However, you still have to drive people to use such a platform. Historically, whether on the desktop or in a company conference room, this has been a difficult task which consumed a number of companies over the last several decades. 

At the core of this are certain technical issues, which some video conferencing approaches do address, at least in terms of getting a critical mass of people on board.

The bigger problem is getting people to want to do this outside of baby cams, granny cams, and folks feeling homesick. So while this is certainly significant progress, Facebook, Skype, and Google are likely to find the difficult part of promoting a new method of communications is getting people to actually use it.

As such, a better initial use case for this technology could be be sharing what folks are seeing, rather than their own face. This may suggest mobile tools will eventually outshine the desktop, simply because they can be used for a different kind of solution. I’m told that holograms will change this; yet I’m not really holding my breath.