The unifying theme that tied all of Apple’s announcements at the recent World Wide Developers Conference Keynote together was, in a word, “design.” Apple took pains to insist how judiciously and deliberately they had designed and engineered every pixel of their software and every nanometer of their hardware.
On the floor in San Francisco, developers swooned over the new iteration of Apple’s desktop operating system, OS X Mavericks, the supercharged battery life of the new MacBook Airs, and the remarkably compact yet powerful next generation Mac Pro. The excitement was amplified to near frothing rabidity during the announcement presentation for the beautifully and wholly redesigned iOS 7. Even the most battle-hardened, seasoned developers leapt to their feet. Apple had carefully pieced together a series of winners.
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Why then, if every detail unveiled by Apple was meticulously crafted, did the company so outrageously flub the branding for an important feature in the next iOS? The name “FaceTime Audio,” Apple’s take on phone calls over the Internet, is so absurdly clumsy that it verges on irony: how can you FaceTime without a face?
What if FaceTime Audio isn’t actually a branding mistake? Is there a chance that the cringe-worthy but innocuous name is Apple’s Trojan Horse, a devastating sneak attack against some of the largest companies in the world, including some of their most important current partners?
Many other tech companies offer what are known as VOIP telephony solutions: Microsoft owns Skype (by way of eBay), Google offers Google Voice and even Facebook allows phone calls through its Messenger app. There are countless smaller-name solutions as well. So why do we think FaceTime Audio could be the comet that kills the dinosaurs?
Unlike anyone else, Apple has the means and wherewithal to severely damage cell phone giants and disrupt the business plans of their largest tech industry competitors in one fell swoop. They can do it by beating everyone the Steve Jobs way: not just by winning in price, but by offering a superior service in a fully integrated, seamless experience.
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Already, Apple has shown a willingness to infringe upon cell phone carriers’ turf. There are six hundred million iOS devices deployed globally, with over 90% of the active userbase utilizing the latest version of the operating system, which includes Apple’s iMessage, a free alternative to SMS. Text messages continue to be a huge profit center for cell phone companies, yet Apple has already begun to drain them. As evidence, Tim Cook at WWDC said that 800 billion iMessages have been transmitted through their servers. How much money have cell phone carriers lost in the process?
FaceTime Audio is less expensive – free is very cheap – and far clearer sounding than traditional cell phone calls. The iPhone 5 hardware supports a technology known as “Wideband Audio” otherwise known as “HD Voice”. This technology, which is standard on FaceTime Audio calls, is astoundingly sharper sounding than what we are used to. It’s the auditory equivalent of the visual difference between an old tube television and a freshly calibrated 4K IMAX screen. Once you hear the difference, you will be hard pressed to voluntarily make a cell phone call the old fashioned way.
Apple is in a position to make a truly unbeatable value proposition to its customers: it can offer a far superior telephone experience to many millions of people, for free. To slam the proverbial coffin shut on their competition, Apple could make FaceTime Audio the default telephone protocol between people with iOS devices, just as the company did for iMessages.
Though approximately 20 carriers globally already support Wideband Audio through their cell services, customers in the United States are currently out of luck. AT&T has pledged to eventually support the standard, but domestic carriers have been reluctant thus far because Wideband Audio uses more bandwidth and is therefore more expensive than a typical, highly compressed cell phone call.
For the time being, FaceTime Audio only works over WiFi, where it will compete against services like the aforementioned Skype, Facebook and Google Voice. But Apple has one card up its sleeve that no company on Earth can match: a $150 billion war chest. Apple could go head-to-head with cell carriers and ISPs all at once by investing a portion of their cash reserves in buying a cell phone company like T-Mobile outright and converting it into a nationwide, low-priced wireless ISP. Until then, Apple could attempt to bully cell phone carriers into accepting FaceTime Audio over LTE, which will lead to carriers evolving into utility companies selling data like a commodity, an inevitable reality that AT&T and Verizon have lobbied long and hard to prevent.
Ten years from now, cell phone companies as we know them may go the way of the dinosaur, those other gargantuan, now extinct beasts. If Apple has its way, we could be paying less for better sound thanks to a ferocious comet with an ugly name: FaceTime Audio.
Andrew McLeod is the Head of Product at Fueled, a mobile app development house in London and New York City. Andrew has consulted on strategic planning for dozens of projects including the popular Freckleface Strawberry game with Julianne Moore. Andrew’s mobile apps have received millions of downloads in the App Store and Google Play. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @mcleodagm.
David Wachsman is Director of Technology at Ericho, a strategic public relations firm based in New York.
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