When Steve Jobs first announced FaceTime alongside the iPhone 4 back in 2010, he said not only was it based on open standards: H.264 for video, AAC-ELD for audio, RTP and STRP for encrypted media streaming, SIP for signaling for voice of IP, STUN, TURN, and ICE for traversing firewalls and network address translation.
But, that Apple would be releasing the FaceTime protocol itself as an open standard. That would allow third parties to create FaceTime clients, presumably for Android, Windows, the Web, Nintendo… any other platform. But, years and years went by, no open standard was ever released, and FaceTime never went cross-platform.
So, what happened?
The Impromptu Open
Well, first, FaceTime becoming an open standard was never really part of the plan. It was more like improve. The WWDC 2010 keynote was set. FaceTime was ready. And then, at the last minute, Steve Jobs wondered if, since FaceTime was based on open standards, if Apple could he announce FaceTime as an open standard.
And so he did. Without talking to the team that made it. Letting them hear the big idea at the same time as the rest of the world – live from the keynote stage. Announced right alongside FaceTime for iPhone was, coming soonish, FaceTime for everything.
Now, that FaceTime hand't been designed to be an open standard, something that generally requires a level of polish and robustness beyond "just get it working in time for the demo and all it has to do is ship on this one here device" is one thing.
Best case scenario, it gets cleaned up and some parts get rewritten if they have to in order to make it cleaner and more robust for everyone, including Apple. While it's completely different than what iOS 1 — iPhone OS 1 — frameworks went through before the App Store was opened to developers for iOS 2 — iPhone OS 2 — it's not completely completely different.
Worst case scenario, like the App Store then or a host of other features since, it takes a year to go from internal only to external beta, as Apple tests things out on themselves, and figures out the problems and constraints, before testing them on the rest of the world.
But, before Apple could even figure any of that out, a worse worse case — worser case? — happened: They go sued. But good.
The 'Patent Troll'
In August of 2010, roughly 2 months after the iPhone 4 was announced, a Las Vegas company named VirnetX filed suit over four patents:
- Agile network protocol for secure communications with assured system availability
- Agile network protocol for secure communications using secure domain names
- Agile network protocol for secure communications using secure domain names (part 2, I guess)
- Establishment of a secure communication link based on a domain name service (DNS) request
VirnetX is one of those companies that does nothing besides filing suits over anything and everything that could, in any conceivable way, infringe on any of the patents they've collected over the years. In short, what many have come to call a patent troll.
Anyway, VirnetX said Apple was using its technology but refusing to pay fair market value. Apple said VirnetX was out of its non-practicing entity mind, and that the patents weren't valid, and even if they were, FaceTime doesn't use any of that technology.
I'm nowhere nearly technically savvy enough to understand the nuances, but it reads a little like VirnetX asserted that any communications that secured are a VPN, regardless of how they work or what they're for, and therefore owe VirnetX money. Apple, and presumably a lot of the rest of the internet using world laughed. But, the East Texas Rocket Docket, known far and wide for being extremely friendly to non-practicing patent entities, like they'd marry them and spawn thousands more if they could… well, three guesses on which side they came down and the first two don't count. Because patent encumbered.
Apple continued adding FaceTime to other devices like the iPod touch and iPad, VirnetX continued adding those devices to their suit, and in 2012 the first decision came down.
Apple lost to the tune of $368 million and an ongoing royalty of 1%.
Now, that might sound like pocket change to company the size of Apple, even back then. Like the change lost in the Infinite Loop lobby sofas. But Apple was also set to pay millions more in ongoing royalties to VirnetX for a service they were essentially giving away for free.
And, more importantly, if FaceTime was released as an open standard, Apple and likely anyone who implemented it would be on the hook for potentially much, much more.
VirnetX has, for example, sued Microsoft, Cisco, and others over the years as well. That is, after all, how that business model works. You sue, in part, to get money to keep on suing.
A lot of the key stuff that happened at the hearings was sealed and neither Apple nor VirnetX commented, but according to Joe Mullin of Art Technica, who spoke to VirnetX stock holder Jeff Lease in 2013 — and yeah, this is all shades of broken telephones — Apple was forced to re-architect FaceTime.
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 (of 2013)
It was a much more expensive way to handle FaceTime and, at least initially, a way that resulted in far worse call quality for far more people.
Apple eventually got that first verdict overturned on appeal. But, in February of 2016, Apple lost the second trial to the tune of $625 million. That decision was overturned by the trial judge due to references made by VirnetX's lawyers to the first trial.
The third trial was held in September of 2016 and Apple lost again, this time for $302 million. Apple appealed again, of course, but, in January of 2019, just a few months ago, lost that appeal, and now owes $440 million in interest, enhanced damages, and other costs.
Apple told Reuters, of course of course, that they'll be appealing this verdict as well.
So, nine years and who knows how much in lawyers and court fees later, and FaceTime at least as originally conceived and proffered as an open standard, is still in litigation and now not be out of it for several more years to come.
How Steve Jobs originally imagined a FaceTime open standard we'll never know. How the FaceTime team originally began brainstorming such an implementation is no doubt a thing of the past. Where, initially, Apple would have to handle user identification, or create a system that could handle both Apple and third party users and route them between devices, now that everything is relayed through Apple, it's almost certainly a much bigger job and definitely a much bigger server load.
The uncertainty also affected Apple's internal efforts on FaceTime. Over the years, it never got the same kind of attention as Apple's other big communications app, iMessage.
Apple did add FaceTime Audio and did bring the service to the Mac and the Watch, but it wasn't until 2018 that even the most basic, most competitive feature was added: FaceTime Group Calls. And then, still, only for those Apple devices.
We've also just gotten Messages integration if not unification, and a AR camera mode on devices with a TrueDepth Camera, which includes Animoji, Memoji, stickers, and other fun if gimmicky but ultimately slow AR UI boil stuff.
Hopefully, that a sign that, patents or no patents, Apple is ready to move beyond the lawsuits or at least beyond perseverating over them, and making FaceTime a first class app. And that's hugely exciting.
There are still features I'd love that we haven't gotten, like FaceTime Call Recording so we can, with the full consent of all parties involved, use it for YouTube and podcasts and more. And FaceTime screen sharing, so the more technically savvy amount us can help the less technically savvy relatives without anywhere nearly as much travel, time, or frustration.
And, yeah, the possibility of FaceTime on the web, if not on Android or Windows proper.
Google has announced and cancelled so many communications services over the years it's hard to keep track of which ones are still available, but as it gets ready to sunset Hangouts, at least the part that isn't Meetings for business, it still has the very FaceTime-like Duo, which is multi-platform and, most recently, available on the web.
But it does tie you to Google which, for some in the age of surveillance capitalism,, is as unacceptable as being tied to Facebook, which is Messenger and WhatsApp, also cross-platform, are also simply not options. Not when Facebook itself, week after week, sometimes day after day, seems to be doing everything it can to throw fuel on its own hot garbage fire.
That leaves Micrsoft's Skype, which is a solid service, but suffers from a terrible user experience that Microsoft seems intent on continually making worse. Yeah, looking at you Electron. It's also not end-to-end encrypted by default. I mean, it didn't used to be at all, which was worse, but as of last August encryption is available… you just have to go turn it on yourself. Which, lame.
Full end-to-end encryption — full privacy — is what makes Apple's services, including FaceTime, so important and, frankly, why people want them to be available beyond just Apple devices.
It's what keeps all of us feeling safe in an age where every big agency and internet company has been caught violating our rights and our decency by spying on us. It's what lets doctors and lawyers and therapists and others use it with clients. It's what lets couples feel comfortable keeping their intimacy alive over long distances and periods of time.
Yup, it's the old for the good of all humanity argument. And if FaceTime can't work as an open standard any more, it could still work as a cross-platform service from Apple… right?
At the end of the day, FaceTime for Android or the Web is as possible and as likely as iMessage for Android or the web. I've already posted a video on that, so check the description for the link because it dives into this part with a lot more detail, but essentially Apple would have to support potentially over a billion new users on their servers.
And pay for them, both in terms of servers and, maybe, ongoing royalties.
Apple doesn't typically run anything at a loss so there'd have to be a business model attached. Data harvesting and advertising are out, obviously, and sticker packs probably wouldn't bring in much. And that leaves subscriptions.
Apple Music, which the company does make and support for Android, has a subscription model attached to it and, by having an Android version, Apple makes the family plan more attractive to cross-platform households. The same will likely be true for TV+, Apple's upcoming video service, which will also be up and coming on Smart TVs from Samsung, Vizio, Sony, and LG.
Would anyone on Android or Windows pay a monthly or yearly subscription for FaceTime? Maybe a few. Probably not many.
But, to beat the bundle to near undeath, what if it came included with Apple Music, TV+, maybe News+ eventually, Arcade+, because pluses for everything, and yeah, iMessage for Android and the Web?
If Apple is serious about building the services narrative and, determined to go from "It Just Works" to "It's private and secure", then all of that certainly seems like it would have to be part of the endgame.