Good News: People Are Using Videophones; Bad News: They're Naked
By Mike Masnick, Wed Dec 15 04:45:00 EET 2004

It's tough to count how many times companies have bet that customers would somehow want to make videophone calls -- and been proven wrong. However, that doesn't mean they shouldn't prepare for the inevitable misuse of videophones.

In 1964, AT&T introduced its Picturephone at the World's Fair, convinced that it would soon be the way that people made phone calls. It turns out there were a few problems. First, making a phone call is a fairly simple process. Making a videophone call has never been that easy. Also, video calls only work when everyone has videophones -- so there's an empty room adoption problem. If no one else has one, there's no incentive to get one. Much more importantly, however, many people just don't want to be seen when they're talking to someone over the phone. It just doesn't excite many people. Despite the repeated failures, time and time again, new companies come along with business models touting the wonders of video calling. Hutchison's 3 practically staked its entire 3G launch in the UK on this premise, only to back down very quickly.

While you still hear the occasional pitch concerning videophones as a 3G application, it's mostly gone quiet (though, some VoIP providers may be picking up the slack). However, operators have not yet given up on the idea that videophone calls are going to be a money maker for 3G services at some point. They're hopeful that as 3G services expand, as more users get cameraphones, and as people get more comfortable with using them, that videophoning may finally start getting used (and start plowing money back to the operators).

With that in mind, they should be excited to hear that some people actually are using videophone capabilities. Unfortunately, some of those are abusing the video part of the calls to make harassing, obscene phone calls, which mainly involve idiotic young men exposing themselves to women. While you may wonder who actually picks up a videophone call from someone they don't know, it still represents yet another case where mobile operators may not have carefully thought through the negative ways in which a feature could be used.

We went through this with basic cameraphones. Over the last year there have been countless stories of governments, schools and companies all overreacting to the "threat" of cameraphones, as if the small percentage of people who might misuse them outweigh the many valuable uses cameraphones have in all of those settings. It's unfair to blame the phone or the operator for a user's misuse, but if operators are serious about getting people to adopt these types of applications, they need to be prepared to handle the inevitable misuses of the technology. When cameraphones started getting banned left and right, the operators stood by mutely, afraid to fan the flames -- rather than demonstrating all the valuable ways that cameraphones could save money, save time and save lives.

With videophoning perhaps getting a bit of usage, the operators are risking the same backlash, and relegating the whole concept of videophones back to the same place they've been for forty years -- which is anywhere but in front of actual users.