It’s easy to imagine how all of those video calls ended up in classic works of science fiction: In a future where communicating via live video is an option, their authors must have wondered, who would choose to write or use the phone?
According to a 2014 Pew Research report, texting and receiving texts is the number one way that Americans use their smartphones. Video chat is number seven, behind accessing the Internet, emailing, downloading apps, getting location-based information, and listening to music. Calling people didn’t even make the list.
Yahoo has some theories for why this is. The first problem with video chat, argued SVP of Yahoo mobile and engineering products Adam Cahan at a press event in New York City on Wednesday, is that it feels formal, like something that requires an appointment. The second is that, because it requires audio, people feel uncomfortable using it in the places where they might text–at work, on the bus, in line at the grocery store. “All of us can hear everything you are saying and everything you are hearing,” he said.
The company’s newest app, LiveText, addresses these issues with an unexpected solution: video chat with no audio.
Instead of speaking, friends communicate via text that appears overlaid on a live, silent video feed from their conversation partner. They can toggle between live conversations, but like Snapchat, once the conversation is over, the video and the message history disappears.
The app’s chat screen looks like the background image of a Snapchat message has been replaced by a live video.
The free app, available for both iPhone and Android, will go live in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany, and France tomorrow. It is already live in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Ireland.
Yahoo’s entry into the messaging space is less than surprising. The company acquired a messaging app called MessageMe last year (that company’s former CEO, Arjun Sethi, led the development of LiveText), and everyone from Snapchat to Facebook to Twitter seems to agree that messaging is the medium for mobile.
LiveText has the ephemerality of Snapchat. Because it’s synchronous, there’s an element of shared experience, like Skype or Facetime. And then, of course, there’s the texting aspect–and, as previously mentioned, that’s what we’re all already doing on our phones.
The hope is that this mix of popular things will result in another popular thing.
During a demo, Sethi started a LiveText conversation with a woman in a Starbucks. There’s not even an option in the app to turn on audio, so she couldn’t hear anything he was saying as the video feed from her phone broadcast on a screen in front of the room. “She has no idea whether we’re talking about her positively or negatively,” Cahan mentioned. That’s either thrilling or terrible, and only the cool kids can tell us which.
Like everybody else, Yahoo sees potential for monetizing a messaging app. “There are plenty of options to monetize,” Cahan said. “Content, payments, even advertising.”
But of course, that’s not the hard part.
“It is all based on scale,” Cahan says.