The iPhone’s next killer apps: VoIP and videoconferencing

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The iPhone's next killer apps: VoIP and videoconferencing

Opinion – The upcoming iPhone 2.0 software is just around the corner and we all may be surprised how Apple’s unified communication solution could merge mobile communication with VoIP, PCs, Macs, iPhones and even Apple TVs. We took a hard, long look at the information that is available right now from reports as well as patent filings to give you an outlook what Apple might be up to, why we are quite certain that VoIP and videoconferencing will be the iPhone’s new killer applications.

Although the 3G iPhone has yet to be confirmed by Apple, we are receiving more information about iPhone 2.0 software update on an everyday basis. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone software road map on March 6, he also announced that, by the end of June, all existing iPhone users will get a major software update that will greatly enhance the iPhone’s capabilities.

What everyone seems to hope for at this time is some kind of VoIP solution, such as Skype, that will enable iPhone users to place free phone calls over Wi-Fi network. The prospects for a VoIP iPhone app looked grim when we learned that the iPhone SDK doesn’t allow third party applications to run in the background: The SDK also specifically prohibits developers from accessing the iPod portion of an iPhone, leading many to believe that Apple created the same barrier for VoIP capabilities.

But Apple soon confirmed it won’t prevent VoIP calls. It will put a block on VoIP calls over the cellphone network, but not on calls made over Wi-Fi networks. So, if you’re near public Wi-Fi hot-spot or a Wi-Fi network at your home or office, you will be able to phone other people for free using VoIP software. With that in mind, many wonder: Will Apple roll out its own VoIP solution with the iPhone 2.0 software update? Well, that’s the million dollar question that only Apple can answer right now. However, all checks indicate the company is developing such solution for its phone.

Third party VoIP

Let’s look at the present VoIP iPhone world first. Ebay is still silent on its plans to officially bring Skype to the iPhone. However, current-gen iPhone users can engage in free Skype chats and cost-effective calling at SkypeOut rates today using SHAPE Service’s commercial solution dubbed IM+ for Skype. It is available for major mobile platforms, as well as the iPhone/iPod touch and can be accessed simply by visiting on your iPhone/iPod touch. iPhone/iPod touch users can use the service to call (over Wi-Fi) and chat with Skype users on their PCs.

Another solution comes from a third-party developer Jajah, which offers web-based call-back solution to iPhone/iPod touch users. It works by visiting service homepage, from which you log in, enter the number you would like to call and then wait until the system connects you to the other party and calls you back. Using the service, you can place international VoIP calls and avoid expensive mobile phone international calling rates. Last week, Jajah announced it is developing “possibly the first native global VoIP app” for the iPhone. It hopes to ship it shortly after the release of the iPhone 2.0 software at the end of June. The native Jajah client is said to enable iPhone users to make free or “low-cost” global calls to any phone in the world using Wi-Fi networks.

Of course, there are many more VoIP applications that harness Wi-Fi connectivity to enable VoIP calls on the handset. Most of them come as web applications that run inside the Safari browser on the iPhone and offer limited capabilities. Some of them come from the hacking community and are quite good, but you can’t use them unless you decide to hack your iPhone. As we can’t possibly cover all available VoIP solutions in this article, we narrowed our thoughts down to Jajah and IM+ for Skype.

There’s clearly a lot of movement going on in this space and we would be surprised, if Apple were to ignore such a key capability in its iPhone. In fact, there is a first indication that Apple will be integrating communication features deep into its computing and entertainment products soon.

The Apple TV angle

The VoIP scenario has become much more obvious since a patent filing that calls for creation of an iChat software widget running on Apple TV was revealed.

This patent could, at least in theory, enable iPhones to place voice or video calls to Apple TV users sitting on a couch and watching, well, TV. The updated Apple TV software would detect an incoming iChat call over a network and instantly show a semi-transparent notification panel over whatever content is running on your big screen TV. Panel would show type of incoming call (voice/video) and caller picture and user could pick up the Apple Remote to accept or decline call.

Some may find this caller announcement to be too intrusive, but it is certainly a different approach of integrating voice communication with entertainment.

Apple’s unified communication solution

So, if you look at VoIP from this perspective, Apple doesn’t even have to create VoIP software for the iPhone from scratch, it already has one: iChat.

As component of the Mac OS X Leopard operating system, iChat is marketed as a “videoconferencing for the rest of us”. It enables users running OS X to invite others to a conference voice call or create a videoconference with up to four people at the same time. In a typical Apple twist, users can apply real-time effects that distort your video (twirl, glow, Andy Warhol colors, comic book, X-Ray, thermal image, etc.), run presentation slides inside a videoconference or even replace backgrounds with video files to appear as if they were somewhere else.

Third party developer pressure, customer expectations and the recent widget filing leads us to believe that Apple will transfer its iChat application to the iPhone with the upcoming iPhone 2.0 software update. If this in fact will happen, then the iPhone will have its next killer application.

With iChat running on an iPhone you would be able to place voice or video calls through Wi-Fi network to other iPhone users or iChat users on a Mac, effectively bridging desktop and mobile worlds. If Apple brings iChat to Windows, which will happen sooner than later anyway, VoIP/video calls could extend to potentially millions and millions iChat users on PCs. Oh, and let’s not forget that iChat on OS X is AIM-compatible right out of the box.

Speculation? Of course. But from all what we can see, Apple has all the puzzle pieces in place to take the iPhone to VoIP and videoconferencing. Especially if you look at the widget, Apple’s approach could be the very first communication technology that expands from your phone, across your computer all the way to the TV.

Share your thoughts with us or suggest a great VoIP applications for all iPhone users simply by writing a comment.

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