The presentation by Steve Jobs opening Apple's developer conference today was packed full of details large and small about the company's hardware and software, but the one detail that could have the biggest long-term impact well beyond Apple itself was the introduction of Apple's new video calling system, FaceTime. Jobs said on stage that the system was based on extensive use of open technical standards, and that the company intends to work hard to make FaceTime an open industry standard itself.

Live mobile video, interoperable across different phones and carriers, could be a force for major changes in the way we experience the Web and the world. It could be one of Apple's most important contributions to the future.

Mobile Video Calling is Coming & It's Going to Be Big

Analyst Alfred Poor estimates in research released today from GigaOm Pro that approximately 3.2 million consumers will have access to mobile video chat in 2010. Poor believes that number will grow almost 50-fold in the next five years, to an estimated 142 million consumers. "The first few years of the market will see fairly small numbers with the main adoptees being early adopters," he writes, "but by 2012 the market will reach beyond the enthusiast audience to a more mainstream audience, and we'll see adoption rates similar to that of SMS and other messaging formats as illustrated in the middle of the last decade."

"The power of video communications," Poor argues, "lies in the ability of the participants to detect subtle emotional nuances during conversations." (Report: The Consumer Video Chat Market, 2010-2015 Subscription required.)

Video communication isn't just about experiencing face-to-face-style interactions remotely, though. It has the potential to enable new forms of cultural experience all together.

As Jake Dunagan and Mike Liebhold wrote in a Skype-sponsored report by the Institute for the Future last fall:

"We've seen throughout history that each new medium comes with its own possibilities and limitations, impacting individuals and the social order in profound ways. The printing press democratized communication and made a literate (and revolutionary) civil society possible. Ubiquitous and accessible communication applications are now allowing more people to join the growing global symphony of text, voice, and video conversations, with vibrant new cultures and practices emerging. We all have the potential to use video-enabled networked devices to communicate in modes and manners we never have before. As Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine wrote, we are witnessing the birth of a new culture around video communication - we are in the midst of becoming 'people of the screen.'"

The Future of Real-Time Video Communication (PDF)

Barriers to the Future

Live mobile video consumption, creation and chat and calling have been held back by a number of factors. Mobile computer processing power has been a big limitation and the iPhone 4's ability to pull it off pushes the envelope. This is presumably a substantial part of why the iPhone 4's FaceTime implementation is only able to call other iPhone 4s at launch. (Note that Nokia phones have supported video conferencing for years, though.)

Bandwidth is another major limitation, and one that Apple is avoiding for now by limiting FaceTime calls to Wi-Fi connections. Jobs said today that the feature is limited to Wi-Fi in 2010, but the company is "working with the cellular providers to get things ready." Note the use of the word providers, plural.

Cries for more and cheaper bandwidth, and more efficient ways to use what is available, will be a defining issue for the near-term future of software development, tech political policy and user experience. See Stacey Higginbotham's excellent write-up of AT&T's new 3G data cap last week for more details.

Interoperability has been another major challenge. Mobile phone users can make voice calls across networks (AT&T to Sprint, for example) and email users can email across networks, but mobile video calling across networks still requires a technical standard that is agreed upon and implemented widely.

That's what Apple aims to do with the introduction of FaceTime. The awkwardly named protocol could be implemented by all major handset manufacturers so that consumers could perform video calls as easily as we perform voice calls today.

Will other companies adopt Apple's proposed standard? If Apple maintains its dominance in desirable markets, they may.

Cross-network calling would make the market explode, as long as carriers can build out capacity fast enough. Unfortunately, there is some doubt that all parties will see big increases in consumer use of their products as a good thing. Some carriers are liable to prefer less use for more pay, and if they can spit in your eye as part of the deal - all the better.

Nothing can be taken for granted, but if Apple can help advance a cross-network standard for real-time mobile video communication - that could become one of the company's most important contributions to the world.