Now, mobile networks’ bandwidth is almost 10 times wider. 4G LTE is rapidly penetrating N. America, Europe and other advanced markets. Handsets, since the launch of the iPhone and Google’s Android smartphones, have redefined the user experience, and have become significantly more capable, in terms of processing, memory and networking, than feature phones. The operating systems of the smartphones are more familiar to programmers. Additionally, tablets have emerged and achieved significant penetration in the market.
In light of the progress above, what can be said about mobile peer-to-peer and multiparty video chatting? Is this a service that is just not meant for mobile, as some argued a decade or more ago, or do the technological advances open a new chapter for such conversational video services?
The lessons learned from the 3G video telephone experience, and other video communication services (e.g. Skype video calling and conferencing over broadband) can be summarized in three points.
Point 1 - Simplicity is key to adoption: The ability to select one, or more, person(s) from your smartphone contact book and simply hit “Call” to reach your friends instantly is key.
Point 2 - Adoption pivots on the user experience. In the smartphone era, people expect a smooth and cool experience. This involves the quality of the video communication, clarity of voice, and how a participant can control what he/she wants others to see/hear, or what he/she wants to see and hear, etc.
Point 3 - Multiparty (group) calling is key. The ability to reach your circle of friends instantly from your smartphone or tablet is crucial. There is no longer a need to book a bridge and remember bridge PINs or the like. It is argued that multiparty video chatting with a compelling user experience can effectively drive mobile video chatting growth virally.
The past decade has shown that video chatting can become a mass-market service on broadband (e.g. Skype), and with the power of smartphones and their network connectivity today (whether cellular or wi-fi), both peer-to-peer and multiparty mobile video chatting can become a mass market service. The emergence of many start-ups in this field over the past few years draws from this notion. Mobile smartphone applications hitting the market also demonstrate that mobile video calling can match the high quality user experience similar to that of broadband services.
Smartphones have redefined the user experience. Their processing capabilities, screen size and their user interfaces help in redefining the video conversational experience, whether for peer-to-peer or group chatting. Feature phones used to struggle with QCIF resolutions (1/82 x the size of 1080p HD video resolution).
Smartphones today can encode/decode HD resolutions with ease. More capable smartphones with multi-cores and powerful GPUs are hitting the market at much higher rate. This creates new user experiences for more consumers.
Coupled with higher bandwidth connectivity, high quality video chatting, whether peer-to-peer or group, is now easily accessible. As smartphone prices have been decreasing and their use continues to increase, user end devices and networks are no longer the barrier, and mobile video chatting is shifting from a niche to a mass market service.
Internet group video chatting
Traditionally, multiparty video conferencing utilizes multipoint control units (MCUs), which mediate access control (signalling) and media processing (video layout composition and transcoding, audio mixing, etc.). Common in the conference rooms of enterprises today, MCUs are typically hardware-based, and are responsible for bridging and mixing video and audio and distributing it to participants.
Challenges in the deployment of group video chatting include the infrastructure costs, resulting business model, and expected return on investment. Unlike enterprise applications, the business model for group conversational video for a mass market service needs to be restructured to take into account how the MCU functionality is implemented, and how the end-to-end service is deployed and marketed. Deploying MCUs as known today, with their present centralized make-up, costs, and functionality will not cut it for a mass market mobile group video service.
The alternative to a centralized high cost MCU is a distributed end-to-end architecture that exploits the capabilities of smartphones, the wider bandwidth network and the internet infrastructure. This approach leads to a decentralized and distributed MCU function that can be deployed on standard internet infrastructure (just servers) where the MCU is doing more of a smart switching role to more advanced video applications on the smartphones. This not only leads to lowered costs for deployments, but also a richer video communication experience that takes advantage of the capabilities of user devices, whether smartphones, tablets, PCs or TVs.
As the mobile evolution has progressed, so have consumer expectations for services that are relatively new to the market. It is important that service providers and carriers ensure customer satisfaction by paying close attention to user experience. As video communication becomes increasingly available, the telecommunications industry and standardization bodies must learn from the past decades of 3G experiences, cater to a variety of devices, and keep deployment costs in mind. Peer-to-peer and group video chatting have the potential to be long-lasting lasting trends that will shape the mobile world going forward.
Marwan A. Jabri, PhD, is VP & head, Video Products Unit, at OnMobile Global