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iPhone 4: Why video calling is a wasted feature

On this side of the pond, I think we’re all pretty much agreed that Steve Jobs’ one more thing for the iPhone 4 was a disappointment. Not just because FaceTime wasn’t the slide-out Qwerty that we’d been dreaming of (ok, that really was just me), nor because we already knew about video calling from the leaked prototype and advertising plans.

It goes deeper than that. In my opinion, we’re more about the words in Britain. It’s not the way we look when we say them, but the way we say them in order to inject the most bile into a negative statement. Or, on our more enthusiastic days, finding the most wryly witty way to say something while indicating that you couldn’t really care less about it. This is the reason we’ve taken so well to Twitter and are better at watching than creating YouTube videos, to put it in sweepingly generic Internet terms.

Yes, video calling is very futuristic – let’s not forget that the Jetsons had it, after all. But, ultimately, having video calling on your everyday handset is just technology for the sake of it.

There are two types of people you call using your handset: people you know and people you don’t know.

Let’s take that first group: you know these people. You’ve worked with them, been drunk with them, tagged embarrassing pictures of them on Facebook or lived in their womb for nine months. Their faces are ingrained in your short-term memory at the very least. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t need to see their faces grinning out at me from my handset when all I want to ask is whether or not we need anything from the shop.

Even though you’ve met and know these people, you still don’t want them to know that you wear pyjamas pretty much all weekend, or that you don’t always wear make up or that sometimes your hair is a mess. More importantly, why would they ever want to subject themselves to what is always going to end up an up-nostril shot of you?

Perhaps if I was living in Outer Mongolia and hadn’t seen a friendly face other than that of my trusty Yak for six months, then – maybe – I would feel like indulging in a spot of video calling. But even then, I’d put my finger over that front-facing camera. No one needs to see that.

And that second group is even worse. First impressions made over video calls are never going to be flattering, unless you happen to be Zooey Deschanel or Johnny Depp.

As half the internet has been quick to point out, David Foster-Wallace, author of cult epic Infinite Jest, shares my poor opinion of video calling. His eight-page tirade about why video telephony failed in an imagined past is a thing of great beauty. His main point holds true: when we’re on a traditional audio-only phone call, we can be getting on with all manner of things while half-listening and offering the occasional ‘uh-huh’ to keep the other side happy. On a video call, you’ve no such luxury. It’s obvious if your attention is wandering or you’re pulling a bit of a face, making the whole experience a little more stressful.

Steve Jobs is obviously not a David Foster-Wallace fan. Still, at least in 20 years’ time when video calling has finally died-out, we can look back and congratulate ourselves on a beautiful art-imitating-life-imitating-art scenario.

In the UK at least, the reaction to iPhone video calling has amounted to little more than a mass “meh”. Other phones have had it for ages without restricting it and I question whether many people will make regular use of it on the iPhone 4. It all comes down to two things most Brits probably have in common: a less extroverted nature than our American cousins, and an absence of any real reason to video call.

All-in-all, a slide-out Qwerty would probably have gone down better.


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