All right tech fans, put on your happy faces and get ready to smile because video calls just arrived on your smartphone...and they're free. Proud owners of iPhone (3GS), iPod touch, and Nokia's Symbian S60 can now use their internet connectivity to make video calls to other mobile users with Fring. Fring is an aggregate social networking application that allows you to channel all of your Facebook, Twitter, Skype, ICQ, etc contacts into one program on your phone. As mentioned in their recent press release, Fring has expanded into video VoIP and now users can enjoy one-way (iPhone) or two-way (Symbian) video calls with mobile and land line contacts (through data streams, not standard phone connectivity). Watch the demonstration videos below to see how it works. There are still some bugs and limitations, but Fring has broke ground as the first application based (aka softphone) video conferencing service for your mobile. Rejoice, technophiles. Rejoice.
What's the biggest limitation? Well iPhone users will notice that their cameras only point in one direction, making two-way video calls impossible. For now, those who download the free Fring iPhone App will simply have to be satisfied with watching their friends' faces while remaining hidden. However, I am making a prediction: iPhones will have two-way cameras by 2011. It's got to happen. There's too much to gain by enabling video calls for Apple to ignore the hardware upgrade. Look at Symbian, whose cameras allow for nice two-way video calls. That sort of capability is going to become more important in the days ahead.
I love how the video above ends with the glaring caveat "Phone Screens are simulated, but fring video is just as cool!" That is some grade A marketing genius right there. If you want to see what the calls actually look like, check out the demonstration for Nokia's Symbian:
Like Skype or other VoIP software, Fring relies on data stream (internet) connectivity. In fact, Fring can even manage how you log on to your WiFi hot spots to help optimize the connection. Much like Skype, Fring can suffer from bandwidth issues, dropped calls, ghosting, delays, and frozen images. These sort of problems can be improved by optimizing connection settings on your smartphone, but I doubt they'll ever completely go way - they come with the VoIP territory.
I'm inclined to simply call Fring "Skype on your Mobile" but it's more complex than that. As an aggregate social networking program, Fring actually accesses other VoIP programs like Skype, Google Talk, AIM, etc. as well as Twitter, Yahoo, MSN, and others. The video calls are just one part of the Fring action. I'll let Fring make up for the marketing blunder above by giving them a chance to explain the program themselves:
There is credit to the claim (towards the end) that Fring can save you money by allowing you to call others using your data stream package rather than your phone's minutes. Generally the data stream cost doesn't limit activity per month, so if you switch to Fring, you can save money by relying on that flat rate rather than paying for extra minutes. Of course, you'd have to be satisfied with the quality of Fring VoIP and fring video. Not everyone will be. And you have to assume that if at some point the data connectivity actively cuts into the minutes that AT&T (or Verizon) can sell due to VoIP software, that the telecomm companies will work to limit those programs in some way.
Fring isn't the first company to make mobile video calls possible, and it's not even the coolest (remember that sweet Dick Tracy-esque LG watch phone?), but it is the first that has a chance to gain a major following overnight. With millions of users and a $0 price tag, Fring could jump from semi-obscure software to becoming a verb: "Are you going to call Mike?" "Yes, but I want to see his face, so I think I'll Fring him." Even forgetting the video call portion of their appeal, I think Fring is onto something with their social networking aggregation. Single point access to our now dozens of popular online social hubs is a very sexy idea. In fact, I'm going to make my second prediction: Social networking aggregating programs will emerge as an important trend in the next two years. Yeah, I'm not sure how likely that one is to come true, but the first one's a guarantee. Come on, Apple, put another camera on the iPhone! Fring and technophiles everywhere demand it.
[photo credit: Fring]