Skype – How it changed everything, and mobile video calling

Image representing Skype as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

When I come to think of it, Skype has become an indispensable tool for me recently. I mostly use it to keep in close contact with someone very special to me, and the fact that it’s free to talk to someone in another country for hours every day in perfect sound quality is amazing to me still. I guess it’s only when you really find a practical application for something like this that it really makes you realise how truly useful it is.

Imagine a world without services such as Skype now. Phone bills would be a killer, especially from mobiles. Even text messages to international numbers are ridiculously expensive considering how simple it must be for carriers to transmit that data by this point in time. I know first hand how much international text messages drain your phone credit. You have to strike a balance between wanting to communicate with the person in question and how much you’re willing to give to your rip-off phone network.

Until recently I think I was paying around 20p per message. I then looked at Skype’s SMS charges and found that they only charge 6p per message internationally. I then decided I would use Skype credit for texting whenever I can avoid using my phone. The coolest thing about this service is that you can even validate your phone number with Skype. This allows you to send texts from any Skype app, desktop or mobile and they appear to the person you’re sending them to as just a regular text message from your number.

This is the only Skype premium feature I make use of currently but it’s all I really need right now. They offer a vast selection of cost saving services and while it can appear confusing upon first glance, I think most internet users, especially those comfortable with VOIP should be able to make the most of it with relative ease.

Before I wrote this post, my original plan was to just talk about the new mobile video for iPhone and iPod Touch. It’s something I was hoping they were going to add as soon as I saw Apple unveil FaceTime on iPhone 4 with the front facing camera. It was an obvious next step for mobile Skype that I’m glad we now have.

While I’m not the most comfortable person appearing on video, I can say that the technology itself seems to work brilliantly. The quality was very smooth from what I could tell from my end when I’ve had trouble recently with my MacBook camera.

Aside from the recent major outage, Skype is always a fantastic tool for communication and I look forward to seeing them continue to innovate in both free and paid services. It would be a sad day if we ever lose the ability to call anyone, anywhere for free so I hope we never have to now.

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Back to the Mac – Apple Event Thoughts

Apple Inc.

When I first heard the tagline “back to the mac”, I thought it was a little silly and just to signify that they were going to announce Lion and possibly a new Mac or two. Both of which they did. However, they really did do a good job of making that theme for the event fit perfectly well in all aspects, but mainly the idea of bringing back innovations from iOS to Mac OS X.

I’d like to go through each of the announcements with my thoughts on each, in the order they were announced in.

iLife 11

iLife 11 wasn’t really a blockbuster announcement in my opinion. To be honest, I skipped past the Garageband segment of the conference when I watched it back later. I’m sure it’s got some nice improvements in it, but it’s not of great importance to me personally.

What I was really interested in was the new version of iPhoto. It’s my favourite of the iLife apps and as a keen photographer, I find it incredibly useful for storing my photo library and uploading my favourites to Flickr. One of the themes of OS X Lion is going to be full screen apps. I’m a fan of this philosophy. As our screens get smaller (for example, with the 11 inch MacBook Air which I’ll get to later), we need to be able to make the best use of the size we have available. A lot of the time, we’re wasting space with docks and universal menus and so I’m all for full screen apps which will increase concentration and minimise clutter on our screens.

One criticism I would have of the full screen mode of iPhoto is that the navigation is completely changed from the regular windowed view, and some people will not be happy about having to learn the app twice in a way, but it wouldn’t trouble me once I got the hang of everything. The uploading aspects have been improved which is also nice to see, as sometimes uploading to Facebook especially was complex and made me want to do it manually. It looks like this won’t be the case any more which is nice to see.

FaceTime for Mac

The annoucement of FaceTime for Mac was a little muted. While I have downloaded the app, and can say that it feels very flushed out and well made, Apple weren’t willing to make this a fully fledged feature of OS X just yet. Instead, they’ve released it as a beta for download from Apple.com. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will prevent a lot of people who may have made use of it miss out because they won’t know it exists yet, and that would be a shame.

Another thing I find strange about this product is that it is a completely separate app and independent from everything else, even if it does incorporate contacts. We’re so used to seeing Apple squeeze so many features into one app, like they do with iTunes, so it feels like a departure from that and a return to simple, dedicated apps like Photo Booth, probably still the most used app on Apple Store demo models. So maybe this product isn’t bad for breaking the norm after all. Nevertheless, Apple have time to come to a decision on how they want it to be before it becomes an official feature of the OS in Lion.

As far as the performance goes, it works brilliantly well on my old first gen MacBook. We did a test call and both my iPod Touch and Mac at the same time. Once set up with your Apple ID, you don’t have to even have FaceTime running to receive video calls. You may wish to turn this off though if you have a lot of contacts and don’t want to be disturbed unannounced. If you don’t mind though, it works extremely well and the video quality is perhaps not incredible, but it does the job with the camera equipment it has access to.

I definitely recommend downloading this beta if you have a Mac with a camera, and if you’ve bought a Mac in the last 5 years, it’s highly likely that you will have. There are only two models that don’t come with built-in cameras, and even the Mac Mini and Mac Pros can work with USB webcams or Apple’s official iSight camera. In other words, you won’t want to miss out. You can download it here.

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion

We knew it was coming, and most of the feature announcements aren’t exactly too difficult to predict. With that being said, there were some things that excited me. Full screen apps, as previously mentioned is something I’m a champion of. I also am very much in favour of a Mac App Store. Downloading and updating apps on computers should be as simple as it is on the iDevices, and now it can be. Not all apps will be available, but a lot will be and it will be a pleasure to use, you can rest assured.

Mission Control looks complex and confusing for the majority of users. I’m a little confused as to whether or not this actually replaces expose or not, but I’m sure they’ll do their best to make it as easy to understand as possible before the OS ships next summer.

Finally, there is Launchpad which is very clearly inspired by iOS home screens and the recent development of Folders. It works in exactly the same way as it does in iOS but with a mouse. I’m not sure if this will entirely replace the application “stack” folder you can use on the dock, but it definitely would for me regardless of whether or not Apple make it compulsory. It would probably cause me to change my dock habits and have less icons in there, and instead use Launchpad and folders to house the majority of my apps.

I may even decide to hide my dock and give myself more screen real-estate, although you may not be gaining that much from doing that if most apps in Lion end up with full-screen modes.

MacBook Air

I was really impressed with the new Airs. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve really wanted a new laptop that Apple have shown. They are really pushing the boat out here with innovation and the price is really strong in my opinion, as it matches up with the base price of the current MacBook.

The 11 inch model is exactly what I would be looking for in a follow up to my current 13 inch MacBook when I eventually have to upgrade. I don’t really need the size of the 13 inch any more and I love the idea of flash storage in a laptop. I don’t like the idea of hard drives spinning constantly as I worry that they’ll get shaken up and break with heavy use. Flash memory is often unreliable as well for different reasons, but considering that they’re only offering flash in these models, Apple must be very confident in their ability to produce very reliable storage systems with that technology, and that fills me with confidence as well.

The 64gb of storage in the base model isn’t big by today’s standards, but considering it’s flash, and that I still am quite a way from filling my 60gb hard drive from my MacBook, it’s not a big worry at this point. It’s going to take a considerable amount of time before my iTunes and iPhoto Libraries are big enough to fill the remaining space.

Conclusion

Apple did well in showing people that they are still very much committed to the platform that launched the company and still plays a big role in its continued success. They are still the leaders in innovation in computer hardware and software, and they show no signs of slowing down any time soon.

FaceTime to the Desktop and Beyond?

IChat
iChat has been ignored for quite a while now. FaceTime could give it a new lease of life. Image via Wikipedia

This is interesting news. It seems the next logical step is to bring the technology to the desktop and laptop space by incorporating it into iChat on Mac and maybe as a separate app on Windows. With the advances in browser-based communication and HTML 5, it may even be possible to bring all of this straight there with no plug-ins or software.

Surely we’ll see an iPad with a front facing camera soon. If FaceTime is adopted as a standard for video calling, we will likely see devices such as phones from many manufacturers and even games consoles like the 3DS and a new PSP that all take advantage of it.

It’s probably not going to be too long before we see video chat of some description take off in the TV space with products like internet enabled TVs with Skype, and products like Google TV as well as games consoles that have potential to offer this functionality.

Whether or not FaceTime will become the standard for all internet-based video calling is another question entirely though, as power players like Skype would have to get on board with it, as well as relative newcomers like Google who offer it in the browser with Gmail.

Apple Event: iPod Touch

The iPod Touch is probably my favourite Apple device ever, from what I’ve owned. I still have all of my 3 old iPods. Compared to the iPod Mini and 2nd Gen Nano, even my 3 year old iPod Touch is so far ahead in terms of value for money and features that it boggles the mind. This new iPod Touch takes it to a whole new level, and they’ve definitely pushed the boat out on this product.

Apple didn’t need to be as aggressive as they have been with this device. They didn’t need to add a retina display, an HD video camera, FaceTime or an A4 chip to keep sales moving. They have basically taken everything that amazed people about the iPhone 4 that didn’t include phone functions, and fitted them all into this device which is so incredibly thin.

Of course, not everything came over unscathed. The stills quality of the back camera is terrible by comparison, and there is no LED flash, but I have a point and shoot for proper photography, and even a 2mp one for snapping on my phone, so this doesn’t matter at all to me. What does matter is the video ability. They could have easily just added a VGA video camera like last year’s nano to the touch and people would have still been impressed, but they went the whole nine yards and blew everyone away.

I won’t go into every detail of the new touch, but as far as my predictions are concerned, I was essentially spot on with all of them, apart from two which were more my own personal predictions that no one else was really making. These were the addition of an FM radio to the package, as well as a new version of iTunes which would allow you to sync your podcast subscriptions from your computer rather than just the episodes themselves. This would allow quick downloading of episodes on the device that wouldn’t require searching the store every time like you currently have to.

Disappointingly, neither of these happened. The radio will have to wait a while until they finally do that, or I’ll just wait for BBC to release their iPlayer App, hopefully with live radio streaming.  The podcast subscription addition is possible in future iOS updates, but it doesn’t look very likely at the moment.