For years, the videophone was one of those gadgets that looked more at home on The Jetsons than in the real world. It's the sort of technology that was always coming soon but never quite here -- consider the number of sci-fi movies, from Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey, that featured variations on the technology.
Today, the novelty has worn off, and video-calling technology is commonplace. But I still keep these applications at arm's length, and I don't see that changing. Not today, and probably not ever.
Consumers have had lots of chances to play with videophone technology over the decades. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) tried repeatedly in the 1960s and 70s to get videophones off the ground, and it tried again -- and again, and again -- in the 1990s. Every one of these products was a flop, plagued by high prices and usability issues. (A videophone isn't very useful if you're the only person you know who owns one.)
And then there's the modesty factor: Most people sound like a mess when they get up from a nap to answer the phone, never mind what they look like.
It helped a bit when videophone technology moved off phones and onto PCs. Millions of people have purchased Webcams, or they have owned computers with Webcams. The technology was suddenly cheap and easier to use.
In fact, I have at least two of those cheap, easier-to-use Logitech Webcams here at home. One is sitting in a box in the attic, and the other one is... well, I'm not sure where it is. I'll have to look into that.
Why did I lose interest? Partly because "easier to use" isn't the same thing as "easy to use." I can name a whole list of services that support video chat -- Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo Video Chat, FaceTime, and at least half a dozen B-list wannabes. Figuring out how to make a chat happen means getting everbody on the same page. That's a problem, and nobody is even close to sorting it out.
Then again, I'm not sure this really needs to be sorted out. One-to-one video communication was born to be a niche application. Most of us, most of the time, don't want to use it. Whether you're a consumer or a business user, very few calls are worth the hassles that come with being viewed by others in real time.
There are some exceptions. Think back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Dr. Haywood Floyd makes that video-call back to Earth. Whom does he call? His family, and in particular his young daughter.
That just about sums it up for me. The next time I'm en route to the Moon, I'll be glad to phone home for a video chat. But here at home, the idea of always being on camera -- or ready to go on camera -- is way too much trouble than it's worth.