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With an improved FaceTime, Apple is seeking a piece of Zoom’s action

New changes to Apple’s venerable videoconferencing app make it a more formidable option for personal and business use.

With an improved FaceTime, Apple is seeking a piece of Zoom’s action
[Photo: Apple]
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The major new FaceTime upgrade that Apple previewed at WWDC seems designed for a post-pandemic world where many of our meetings will remain virtual.

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Many of us will return to the office in some fashion, but one of the lessons of the pandemic is that we can save on gas and aggravation by doing some of our meetings from home. The pandemic was Zoom’s big break, but other tech companies, perhaps sensing a future for remote work, have polished up their videoconferencing solutions. Now Apple is one of them. The new version of the app will debut in this fall’s updates to iOS, iPadOS, and MacOS.

“The updated FaceTime app . . . is becoming a competitor to Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” wrote Morgan Stanley Research analyst Katy Huberty in a note to investors on Tuesday.

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Two new features in particular seem to at least lay the foundations for a more competitive videoconferencing product.

Apple made it easy to generate a link to a FaceTime call that can be shared practically anywhere–in a text message, email invite, on social media, etc.–just like you can in Zoom. You can also schedule a FaceTime call in Apple’s Calendar app–including the time, subject, and attendee list–and send it out as an invite.

These things wouldn’t be so important if it weren’t for the fact that you no longer have to own an Apple device to participate in one of these FaceTime calls. Android users can use their Chrome browser to join a FaceTime meeting. Same goes for people who use the Edge browser (or Chrome) on a Windows machine. (However, people on non-Apple devices can only join FaceTime calls; they can’t initiate their own.)

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Catching up with Zoom

FaceTime can support up to 32 people on a call (plus the user who initiated it). That many faces can be pretty unwieldy on an iPhone, though it works better on an iPad or Mac. To better manage higher numbers of participants—perhaps for business calls—Apple added a new grid view in iOS 15, stacking up users on the screen Brady Bunch-style. The image of the person talking enlarges a bit, and you see a border around their picture.

Zoom on mobile supports up to 100 participants. The app defaults to Active Speaker mode, in which the app detects who’s talking, and makes that person’s face larger than the others on the screen. Zoom’s gallery view is very similar to FaceTime’s grid view.

Apple says it’s using the technology behind the iPhone camera’s popular Portrait Mode to blur the background and make the user’s face stand out in FaceTime. Zoom added a blurred background feature to its app in March; to my eye the Zoom blurred background looks every bit as good as Apple’s. (Microsoft Teams beat both companies to offering such a feature.)

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A feature-for-feature comparison only goes so far. Zoom still has a lot of features that FaceTime doesn’t have. Examples: It offers virtual backgrounds that can make it look like you’re dialing in from the beach or from Mars. It has a Touch Up My Appearance feature that smooths out your complexion. It lets you draw annotations on shared screens, offers more options for sharing links to videoconferences, and builds in features for conducting webinars as well as video conferences.

New audio tricks

Still, Apple has added some interesting tricks of its own to FaceTime, mainly by leveraging its audio engineering prowess. The new version will get Spatial Audio, so that the voices on a FaceTime call sound spread out–as if they’re coming from the place on the screen where the person speaking is. The feature creates “a sound field that makes conversations flow as easily as they do face-to-face,” said Apple software chief Craig Federighi during the WWDC keynote on Monday.

Another new FaceTime feature called Wide Spectrum allows the user to set the microphones on their device to capture a wide spectrum of background sound. This might be used to transmit the sound of a forest setting or a symphony hall during a FaceTime call.

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On the other extreme, FaceTime’s new Voice Isolation feature analyzes, then blocks out, background noise that might interfere with a meeting. (Zoom also offers a background sound suppression feature.)

Partner to competitor

At the moment Zoom, is more of a partner to Apple than a competitor. Millions of iDevice owners use Zoom, and Zoom relies on the App Store to reach them.

But cooperation with Apple can quickly (or gradually) turn into coopetition. That’s what happened to Tile, the thing-tracker company that stood by as Apple launched its own competing product, AirTags, and connected the devices to its Find My app via a proprietary radio technology.

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In that case Apple flexed the power of its ecosystem to create a superior product, or at least a more tightly-integrated one: Find My is built into iOS, making it unnecessary to install another app to track personal items.

Similarly, Apple might think of ways to leverage its ecosystem to make FaceTime easier to use than Zoom in some situations. One of the new FaceTime features Apple announced does exactly that, albeit in a way that’s initially focused more on fun than work.

The new SharePlay feature lets Apple device users connect via FaceTime to listen to music, watch movies, or use apps together; it will also enable Zoom-style screen sharing. All the users share the same set of playback or app controls, and the FaceTime platform keeps the content streams synced so that everybody is hearing and/or seeing things at the same time.

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Videoconferencing has become too big a part of life for Apple to treat as a minor part of its portfolio.

The music content comes from Apple Music. As for video content, Apple says Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, and Hulu (but not Netflix) have already integrated SharePlay into their apps, as have Twitch and TikTok. (Actually watching TikToks together could become a new national pastime). The feature is based on an API that any developer can use, so additional applications—including more business-oriented ones such as shared whiteboarding—are likely.

One other difference between Zoom and FaceTime involves the price of admission, Zoom offers a free version that limits group calls to 40 minutes and paid plans that start at $150 a year. Meanwhile, FaceTime is free, period; for Apple, it’s a benefit of buying into the company’s ecosystem rather than a profit center unto itself.

Today Zoom is well ahead of Apple in videoconferencing, especially for business purposes. Zoom has been pushing hard to dream up and build new features into its product, while still keeping the experience simple. Videoconferencing is all it does, so it’s been laser focused on strengthening its product to sustain the company in the post-pandemic world.

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But videoconferencing has become too big a part of life for Apple to treat as a minor part of its portfolio. Given the fact that Apple devices are the central piece of technology in many people’s lives, the company needs its own flavor of videoconferencing to be readily available, and FaceTime is the natural way to do it.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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