Why FaceTime quality might have dropped, why Apple still hasn't released it as an open standard, and patent trolls

Why FaceTime quality might have dropped, why Apple still hasn't released it as an open standard, and patent trolls

Way back in 2010 when FaceTime was first announced alongside the iPhone 4, Steve Jobs said that Apple would be releasing it as an open standard, presumably so other companies could make compatible clients on other platforms, and the world could video chat in harmony. But that never happened. Apple was sued by VirnetX, a patent-holding entity - sometimes referred to as patent troll. Apple lost the original trial, held in Texas' infamous rocket docket - a favorite of patent trolls - and lost the appeal. Now it looks like they're on the line for millions of dollars, and worse - are having to change the way FaceTime itself works. Joe Mullin spoke to Jeff Lease, one of VimetX's investors, for Ars Technica:

Before the VirnetX case, nearly all FaceTime calls were done through a system of direct communication. Essentially, Apple would verify that both parties had valid FaceTime accounts and then allow their two devices to speak directly to each other over the Internet, without any intermediary or "relay" servers. However, a small number of calls—5 to 10 percent, according to an Apple engineer who testified at trial—were routed through "relay servers."

Both sides in the litigation admit that if Apple routes its FaceTime calls through relay servers, it will avoid infringing the VirnetX patents. Once Apple was found to be infringing—and realized it could end up paying an ongoing royalty for using FaceTime—the company redesigned the system so that all FaceTime calls would rely on relay servers. Lease believes the switch happened in April.

And this, according to Lease, has proven expensive and resulted in a significant rise in service complaints about FaceTime. I'm not a patent lawyer nor expert, and I can't tell if Apple is really violating VirnetX's patents or if VirnetX's patents are so broad and vague as to be impossible not to violate. FaceTime, however, was based on open standards, so it could well be the latter. In which case, it shows once again why, under the current system in general, and with patent trolls and the Texas rocket docket in particular, we can't have nice internet things.

The VirnetX lawsuit has also forced changes to Apple's VPN on-demand feature.

Apple isn't changing course on FaceTime itself, however. iOS 7 will include FaceTime Audio, and Apple recently put out a new FaceTime Every Day ad.

Whether or not Apple will ever be able to release FaceTime as an open standard, though, now remains a huge question, since anyone implementing it might likewise become subject to a patent suit courtesy of VimetX. In the meantime, go read the rest of Lease's story on Ars and then come back and tell me what you think.

Source: Ars Technica, thank Anthony!

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Why FaceTime quality might have dropped, why Apple still hasn't released it as an open standard, and patent trolls


If a company with the patent doesn't use the technology it has the patent for in anyway similar to the "offending" company, then they should be fined and the patent thrown out. All it is is greedy lazy people wanting more money.

Someone needs to bomb these patent troll a-holes into oblivion. No different than common terrorists and they should be treated as such.

The patent system needs a serious do-over, better yet kill tech patents altogether. So sick of people behaving like a-holes because they can. Stifling innovation and adding zero value, just to line their own pockets.

Ass Clowns!!!

I've heard about this "FaceTime Audio" thing, what is it anyway?? Sounds like its just a phone LOL

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Yeah i guess. So they'll keep the phone app, but have another phone app, its just called FaceTime? Why not just get rid of it if its not doing anything? Its really too bad cuz I like FaceTime.

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That's exactly what it is, but think about when you don't have a decent cell signal, but do have a wifi connection.

Thats true. So why dont they get rid of FaceTime and add wifi calling??

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Any difference between wifi calls and FaceTime calls?
Does it mean with wifi calls it wouldn't be infringing the patents.?

FaceTime is just a name for an application per se.

That's what I'm wondering. Does a direct connection for audio infringe on the same patent. From what I remember reading, it broadly mentions a "secure connection," so I think Apple may still need to route FaceTime Audio through relay servers as well.

Theres no difference between wifi calls and FaceTime (Audio) calls, but FaceTime is just an extra now. They could easily add wifi calling (so many apps offer it), but it might be a problem for carriers because people would be using wifi as much as they could, but then whats the point of a cellular phone?

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the problem with so many Voice over IP (VOIP) is that they are propietary, and require being somewhat tech savvy to set up. Try that with your average 70 year-old or older relative....

Facetime, and probably Facetime Audio would be great for my folks, because it works just like a phone call ("answer") and does not need any special setup. And cell signals and calls are dropped all the time in rural America where my folks live, but they have high speed internet courtesy of federal programs for it.

So yet another good idea by lots of manufacturers that Apple will probably do best.

Honestly unless Apple can figure this out they will find themselves in the same boat as RIM. Communication standards should be open.

And this, my friends, is exactly why we pushed for a law in New Zealand that prevents you from patenting software.

Apple likely wouldn't have ios or osx then. They'd have little incentive to make consumer products. Virtually everything they make relies of patented software.

Here is the question. If Apple has money, and they certainly do, why wouldn't they pay a license fee to this company and get it over with?

Because the troll wants as much as 700 million.. and thats just to even up. They think their patent is worth billions.. should Apple just pay billions and billions for just 1 patent? you nuts? you know how many patents Apple has to cover just for the iPhone alone? Thousands.. Before you know it, each Smartphone would cost $20k just to make and satisfy the greed of the 'patent holding companies' .. trolls.

Communications patents really need regulation at a minimum. If their patent is as 'essential' as VirnetX claims; They can sue just about anyone (and they are, Apple is the first of a long list they are suing over this patent). It should be declared essential and some fee that actually has some form of reason attached..

Sadly, this patent kills the idea of FaceTime becoming an open standard as well. I was so looking forward to seeing it open and on Android, BBM, Windows Phones as well as PC's both linux and Windows based.

Thanks to patent trolls.. 2 steps forward and 5 steps back to stone age!

you are correct, but what is the point of having a patent if you are not licensing it. They can either license it for a fer amount or they can have nothing if Apple works around it. It is their call.

People deserve to be credited, and compensated for their inventions, but these patent trolls are just leeches stuck to the ass of every company that wants to innovate, and ship great products. We seriously need some kind of patent law reforms. I've read through a lot of these patents that Apple, and other companies have been sued over. They're vague, and probably deliberately so. I know it's expensive, but I'm hoping that Apple will be more aggressive with these trolls, and not settle anymore. If someone owns a patent, and then never actually develops a product based on the patent, then they don't deserve to profit from others who have the same basic idea, and actually did develop and ship a product. Patents should not be granted on vague concepts, and instead should be much more detailed.

I really wish Apple would buy them out (and possibly shut down the company?). Patent trolls don't really have a place in our world full of companies that are trying to innovate.

That sounds good on the surface, but what is Apple (or any other large tech company) going to do? If they bought out every patent troll they would be giving them exactly what they want...LOTS OF UNWARRANTED MONEY.

The patient trolls are leaches that want to get something for nothing. Law firms are willing to shuffle the paperwork and represent in hopes of getting a big payday. Look at what they are doing to the tech industry. Do you think Apple would be able to settle with them reasonably? The very act of what they are doing is insane and unreasonable.

Buying them out still allows them to syphon money from Apple. They don't deserve to be paid unless they're giving something USEFUL in return. A vague concept is not useful. These patent trolls are in business only to sue other companies. If there is a way to make this kind of business model illegal without introducing other problems as a result, I would be all in for it. It's wrong to be in business for the sole purpose of suing others. The lawyers who work for these patent trolls are a huge part of the problem. Clearly, they don't give a crap about actually helping people. Their goal is nothing but money. They're greedy disgusting bottom feeders.

Whats gonna happen to the people that have the iPhone 4? iOS 7 isn't compatible with some of the earlier models. So will apple make a small iOS 6.1.4 update to make those changes on FaceTime for the earlier model users??

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I'm not sure how you came to conclusion that this is the reason why FaceTime is not an open standard. This case has no bearing on that. You may as well say the iPad Mini is why Apple hasn't released FaceTime as an open standard, as that argument is just as valid.

It is speculation, seems to be stated that way. And on the surface, makes some sense. If there is ongoing patent lawsuits, no way to push as an open standard.

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Apple is a fierce defender of its own patents, why is it that everybody that acts the same way against Apple is treated like the offending party and called a patent troll? Is not Apple the largest troll of all? Perhaps VirnetX worked very hard for that patent and when they saw Apple using it, their CEO threatened to go thermonuclear on Apple.

I bet Samsung is very sympathetic of VirnetX.

Because the people you're asking it to are partisan, most are not exactly legal scholars, patent attorneys, or people with experience drafting patent laws. So largely they are preaching to the choir often w/o much understanding of theology either, so to speak.

Apple had ample opportunity to release FaceTime specifications - years - before this suit became an issue. This suggests either Apple knew it may be infringing (trollish patent or not) and implemented anyways - the same thing Samsung gets raked over the coals here - or they were only providing lip service to standards in Jobs unveiling. Publishing a specification - or even a progress report - would have had little to no bearing on any patent dispute, and yet they published a single, incomplete draft in all the time they had. This patent smells bad, but lets not pretend Apple has been champing at the bit to contribute to an open specification if only it weren't for those meddling USPTO kids.

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I hope congress respond quickly to these patient trolls!! Then again, wanting or expecting congress to do anything positive in a urgent matter is like being in Unicorns....tears!

I understand why patents exist and why they should. What they should do is if the company has a patent for x amount of years and hasn't done anything with it that patent should be invalidated. Thus should force these small and large companies that hold these patents to provide proof that they are not just holding these patents to get rich once another company releases software that are accused of using such patents. And make patents a little more to the point into what exactly is suppose to do. Saying "secure wireless connection between devices" shouldn't be enough to validate a patent. It needs to be more specific as to how. I'm tired of hearing companies getting sued over infringing on patents. Cause it's funny how these lawsuits always seem to come after months/years after a company has made money from their own products. The courts should also take that into consideration when delivering a verdict and investigate the plaintiff to see what they have done with the patent in question for the time they had it.

Totally agree with previous poster about patent trolls. Also though once again Texas ruining it for everyone. Don't mess with Texas!!! Yeah they're messed up enough. What a clusterphuk cumwad. Oh Texas you don't like it SCREW YOU AND THE HOOKER YOU RODE IN TEXAS!!!!!! RocketDocket my ass.

patent trolling should made illegal and any company found to be doing it have the patents they hold revoked and pay a large fine aswell as having to shut down the company