Ask iMore: Where's FaceTime for Android?

When Steve Jobs first announced FaceTime for the iPhone 4 back in 2010, he said not only was it based on open standards, 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, or any other platform. But, years and years went by, no open standard was ever released, and FaceTime never went cross-platform. So, what happened?

First, the news that Apple was going to open up the collection of open standards that made up the FaceTime protocols as its own open standard, is rumored to have been news to everyone at Apple when Steve Jobs first said it on stage. Whether or not that's urban myth is hard to say, but it does seem like no long-term plans had been made concerning FaceTime's open standard future at Apple. All of that would have to be decided post-launch, and could involve a lot of work to make good on.

Second, in August of 2010, roughly 2 months after the iPhone 4 was announced, Apple was sued by a patent holding company named VirnetX by a patent entity over a "method for establishing secure communication link between computers of virtual private network".

Apple refused to settle, so they went to court. VirnetX continued adding services, including FaceTime, and devices, including the iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 to the suit.

In 2012, Apple lost to the tune of $368 million. That might not sound like a lot of money to a company like Apple with over a hundred billion in the bank, but Apple was also set to pay millions more in ongoing royalties to VirnetX for a service they were essentially giving away for free.

It's impossible for anyone outside Apple to know for sure, but it seems like the lawsuit took a lot of the wind out of the FaceTime sails for a long time.

Face Un-timed

Apple did announce FaceTime Audio as part of iOS 7, and continued to market it, fight the lawsuits, and re-architect FaceTime to go through relay servers and, hopefully, work around the patent.

Still, FaceTime as an app and service didn't get the same type of attention as, say Messages, at least not for a long time, and the way Apple was forced to rearchitect the service made it so dependant on Apple that releasing it as an open standard or supporting users on other platforms was no longer as easy a call to make.

How Apple originally envisioned third party FaceTime implementations working was never disclosed. It looks like Apple would have to handle device identification, or create a system that could handle both Apple-identified and third-party identified devices. What's certain is that Apple never expected to have to run all FaceTime calls through their own servers.

Any third party trying to offer similar support might be subject to the same litigation from VirnetX, who has previously sued Microsoft, Cisco, and numerous others.

On call

With iOS 12, Apple has finally given FaceTime some much-needed attention, including adding group call, Messages integration, and an AR camera mode on iPhone X. Whether that means Apple has moved beyond the patent suits, beyond caring about them, or has figured something else out is uncertain. But, it's hugely exciting.

I've already asked for even more features, like screen sharing and call recording, but it also brings back the possibility of cross-platform Android and Windows support.

Microsoft bought Skype years ago but hasn't done much to make the product a better user experience (and the latest, Electron app, is a step backward for many). Google cloned FaceTime into Duo a couple of years ago, but it never got the same mindshare (and its knock feature was just all shades of awkward.)

A cross-platform FaceTime might be appealing to people who want something with typical Apple elegance but also end-to-end-ecryption.

But, Apple doesn't typically run anything at a loss. So, adding hundreds of millions of potential Android and Windows users to the relay servers, with no business model attached to it, might simply be a non-starter.

For example, 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.

A unified Apple Subscription service, one that comes with Apple Music, Apple Video, Apple Magazines, Messages, and FaceTime Everywhere — all for one price, would certainly be interesting for customers. But would it be for Apple?

It doesn't seem impossible anymore, but it still doesn't seem likely.