Quarter Life Crisis

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iChat AV

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I couldn't resist trying out iChat (AV) either. While the program still has many shortcomings (no ICQ, separate windows for the buddies in different services come to mind), it's just incredibly pretty. I happen to like the speech bubble interface – at least for short messages. And then, of course, there are those 'AV' features. For lack of a camera that's only 'A' for me, but nontheless.

This being the exciting world that it is, I in fact enjoyed my first iChat internet 'A' conversation only minutes after installing the program thanks to Dave calling. As I was about to go to bed and this was somewhat unexpected, it was only a quick tryout. My first impression was very positive. For one it 'just worked' as promised. No selecting microphones or setting up things needed whatsoever: Sure, there only is one microphone built into my Powerbook, but nonetheless every other application for this purpose I saw so far bothered me with settings concerning this before I could use it (it seems like iChat also has setting for this, but you don't see them unless you go looking). Connecting was swift, the lag was really low and sound quality was fine – better than what you get when people call from mobile phones. The hardest bit for all this to work was finding my stereo's remote control to switch it over to the computer...

Technically this connection was easy, I suppose: I have a superfast network connection and Dave has a DSL connection, without any hindering NAT or firewall magic between the computers. The packets had to travel quite bit for this: something around 20 to 30 hops (the last ten were * in traceroute, I don't quite know what that means), taking 120ms for the first 20 and traveling from Göttingen to Frankfurt to Holland (?) to San Francisco to New York to Detroit.

The second round for iChat A was yesterday, when I wanted to try it out with Steffen. He's within the country, so the route consisted only of 12 hops in about 80ms – not that exciting. However, he is hidden behind some NAT and routing bit of equipment to make things more interesting. Also, Steffen's whole network only has 128kbit upstream.

My attempt to initiate a connection to his computer failed. He would be asked to confirm the connection request and iChat would give a 'Connecting…' message but trying to do that failed. The other way round, however, with Steffen initiating the connection, things worked smoothly. Quite good for the start but not 100% working around firewalls as Apple claims, it seems.

Once we were talking, a couple of observations concerning the audio could be made. To begin with, I noted that iChat automatically paused iTunes as soon as the connection was established. A nice touch. Once the connection came up, again, sound quality was quite good, although both of us used the tiny microphones built into the iBook and the Powerbook respectively. Apple must be doing some extra magic to improve the sound there.

But that's not all. Next thing we observed was that iChat consumed quite a lot of processing power, making other programs quite sluggish. The rate of processing power it used varied greatly from all it could get on my Powerbook to around 40%. Our suspicion was that the program perhaps tries to figure out the situation for the connection first and then adapt to it. This was confirmed to a certain degree by observing that when I unplugged the Powerbook from my stereo, using the built-in speakers instead, at first there would be quite an echo of my own voice coming back to me. But, magically again, that echo vanished after a while. It would be probably quite interesting to hear about the algorithms they use for this. Although I'm not an engineering type, I do find these things fascinating.

Another thing we observed was that the connection quality deteriorated after a while. Quickly re-starting the connection would greatly improve the results. Things seemed to get worse after using the computer for other things while talking. Perhaps there is some kind of fall-back mechanism in the program? Steffen also reported that, after he did some processor intensive stuff on his iBook, the transmission from me would sound severly broken and didn't improve until we re-connected.

The funniest observation I made was that when using the Powerbook's built-in speakers, Steffen's voice would come mostly from the right speaker. This probably makes sense as the microphone is built in next to the left speaker on the Powerbook (it doesn' explain, though, why Steffen observed the same thing on his iBook). This wasn't just a clever shift of the sound balance, by the way. The sound was equally distributed between both speakers on my stereo. So there must be some tweaking going on.

Unfortunately I couldn't try out the 'V' bit in iChat AV (anybody fancy sending me an iSight?). I wonder whether my Powerbook will be able to cope speed-wise, seeing that just talking already takes a lot of processing power. Apple gives a G4 or 600MHz G3 as minimum requirements for video, so in theory it should work. On the other hand, they may put an extra effort into making the sound good, which would make sense as having a few glitches in the video will be much less irritating than having incomprehensible speech.

Judging from my little experiments, the new iChat looks very promising. They still have about half a year to go until it's final and there's still work to do. The main point probably is interoperability. As I said before, it needs support for other protocols, ICQ for me and probably that Microsoft stuff for the worshippers of the beast. Looking at the blurb about the open parts of Proteus' intestines, I wonder whether those could be pieced together to something that logs into ICQ and displays ICQ contacts as Rendezvous contacts on the local computer, forwarding messages as required.

Then, iChat has to work with other existing solutions. It's all nice and dandy to have effort-less videophoning with other iChat users, but seeing that very few people have the setup (camera, computer, software, broadband) to do that, being able to talk to the other 97% of the audience seems essential. It also seems a hard thing to achieve. Steve Jobs mumbled something about open standards and making an effort to interoperate with other systems. We'll see to which extent they live up to that claim at the end of the year.

Another thing that iChat lacks imo is some kind of local time indicator for your contacts. With the world 'shrinking', these things seem to become increasingly important. I always used to think having a set of four clocks with local times for London, Paris, New York and Tokyo on them was a bit silly. After all, it's rather simple arithmetic involved to convert the time. But it makes things much easier. You can tell the time in Tokyo at a glance rather than having to remember the offset of Tokyo's time zone and do the computation. This is even more true for internet contacts that possibly come from any time zone. Keeping track of who is in which time zone and what those time zones are requires a good memory from you but should be trivial for your computer. So why not let the computer do this. Gone are the days where having to think about time zones meant you were going on a holiday.

I'm not sure whether this will revolutionise the way we communicate as much as Steve Jobs claims to believe – there are much more versatile and ubiquitous tools known as phones for the audio bit, and very few people to do the video stuff with. I don't really see the advantages of seeing whoever I'm talking to, I may even find that annoying. What would me much more useful in terms of productivity are tools for collaborative working along the lines of Hydra, a shared drawing board (that's said to be part of Microsoft's software already), or some screen sharing as seen in VNC or Apple's Remote Desktop. Those may not be as flashy as a video phone, but they should be very useful for discussing documents and editing them together.

June 25, 2003, 18:31


Trackback “WWDC 2003 Keynote” from Michael Tsai’s Weblog:

Matt Gemmell has my favorite writeup of Panther and its new metallic Finder. I can’t wait to see how Apple will change the human interface guidelines to suit this whim. Personally, I think it’s time to change the default system fonts and smoothing sin…

June 25, 2003, 20:50

Trackback “WWDC 2003 Keynote” from Michael Tsai’s Weblog:

Matt Gemmell has my favorite writeup of Panther and its new metallic Finder. I can’t wait to see how Apple will change the human interface guidelines to suit this whim. Personally, I think it’s time to change the default system fonts and s…

July 23, 2003, 21:44


Comment by vincent: User icon

Actually, I think the AV options will be popular for a time due to novelty effects, but I doubt they will make it into main stream IM. The precedent has already been set with telephones. About 5 years ago, they were pushing phones with cameras so you could have video conversations. Besides that fact that the video was coppy and somewhat slow, people didn’t like having to see who they were talking to.

It all boils down to what you use the device for. With phones people are used to having conversations where they are not seen. I can talk to you in my underwear if I wanted - introducing video took a lot of that “conversational freedom” away, forcing it in the stricter realm of direct personal interaction. The normal audio only phone grants you some level anonymity - its safe. Doing something your not supposed to when your parents call? They won’t see you. Is there a girl you like that you still don’t have the nerve to speak to in person - the phone is perfect.

This is the same thing with IM, only it further relaxes conversational protocol from direct contact more than phones do. With IM not only do I have the relative anonymity and safety of the phone, but now I don’t have to constantly engage the person I’m talking to. How many times do you have IM conversations while your focusing on something else? With IM the other person doesn’t know; you can just quickly read their message, reply and then go back to what you’re doing until they say something again. This isn’t possible with audio conversations where one is by default engaged in the conversation; you have to actively listen in an audio conversation. Its even worse for video/audio conversation - now you have to even look like your paying attention.

I think when it comes down to it. IM is going to say as a headless/voiceless means of text communication for the majority. If people really want to be that engaged in a conversatioin they will see each other in person. (Obviously the special cases include if you couldn’t see them in person due to distance.)

June 25, 2003, 19:35

Comment by Lacinema: User icon

I just happened upon your thoughts doing a search to find out what other people are doing with iChat.

I disagree that people will lose interest. I don’t think it will replace the phone altogether and I think that certainly there is a factor that often you need to have only your ears distracted and not your eyes. However, what is happening is that iChat is opening up entire new communication reasons and abilities. Already I chat with my artists on video only so that we can quickly sketch pictures and show with our hands what we are talking about.

I’ve seen the videophones running over phone lines - nothing compared to iChat.

One of my artists lives very remotely and already there is a much stronger bond between us because of the more direct contact and I think he loves it because now he is less remote, less alone.

June 27, 2003, 22:58

Comment by Jenny Connor: User icon

Good Read

November 9, 2004, 8:33

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