Video Phones Offer Face Time, Even if Consumers Aren't Ready

An assistant to Taiwan's External Trade Development Council displays a video phone from Mototech Technology.
An assistant to Taiwan's External Trade Development Council displays a video phone from Mototech Technology. (By Wally Santana -- Associated Press)
By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 2, 2005

George Jetson, his boy Elroy, Dick Tracy and Capt. James T. Kirk have used video phones for decades, calling people across the universe with unselfconscious ease.

But Americans have never embraced the technology which -- far from being science-fiction fantasy -- has been around since AT&T unveiled it at the 1964 World's Fair.

Internet communications company Skype Technologies SA yesterday joined a band of firms offering video phone service in the belief that people are finally ready to overcome the basic human fear of being seen on a bad hair day.

The company, bought by eBay Inc. in October, said it would give away software that will let people make video calls for free around the world as long as they -- and those they call -- have a computer, a fast Internet connection and a webcam.

For eBay, video may help auction sales by allowing sellers to communicate more directly with buyers and to better display their wares.

Skype is by no means alone in the market, though. America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Yahoo Inc. offer video calling through their instant messaging services. These, like Skype, require some measure of technical savvy to hook up webcams and install software.

Companies including 8x8 Inc., Motorola Inc. and Viseon Inc. are taking a different path by rolling out video phones that work more like appliances -- with cameras, screens and microphones built into a unit that plugs into a broadband Internet connection.

The question -- and analysts say it is wide open -- is whether consumers bombarded with sound and images want to open their home to yet another screen and put themselves in front of a camera when they answer the phone.

"The classic example is somebody calls you and you just got up, your hair is in a mess and they can see you," said John Delaney, a principal analyst with London consulting company Ovum Ltd. "At the moment, you are talking to me and you have no idea what I am doing, and that might be a good thing."

During an interview, Delaney said he was working from his home office in Kent, England, and that he was not in his pajamas, "but I easily could be."

"It's quarter past four in the afternoon here, and I think pajamas would be considered a little louche," he said. "I am wearing a perfectly conservative sweater and slacks, thank you very much. "

Sheldon H. Hochheiser, a former AT&T historian, said the company's first video offering -- Picturephone -- failed for three key reasons: high cost, the chicken-and-egg problem of getting one when no one else has one, and a general reluctance of people to be seen when they talk on the phone.

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