You might have heard about the Vphone at CES, the first Android handset by new manufacturer Saygus. The main thing it’s bringing to the party is two-way video calling by way of a forward-facing VGA video camera (the first Android device with such a thing), and a specialized protocol that can supposedly produce calls at four times the usual resolution while using half of the bandwidth. Verizon seems like a pretty done deal, Saygus is just waiting on getting verified in the labs before showing the video calling in action, and we should have an official announcement in the next couple of weeks. If you hadn’t had a chance to check out the specs, they’re pretty impressive: Android 1.6, upgradeable to 2.0, 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and flash, miniUSB port, 3.5mm audio, 806 Mhz processor (they upgraded from 625 Mhz), 3.5” WVGA touchscreen, and four hours of video talk time.
After spending 12 years on getting video calling just right, the Saygus CEO, Chad Sayers, is about as passionate about this project as you’d expect. He’s got high hopes not only about making video calling viable in North America and Europe, but also its application for the deaf when used in conjunction with remote interpreters. Saygus is keen to license their video calling technology; apparently there are already four to six devices in the pipe that will be using Saygus tech. The compression is good news for everyone in that it actually makes video calling over the traditional 2 or 3G data connection viable, as opposed to relying on purpose-built infrastructure that can be pricey for carriers to set up and end-subscribers to use. Chad actually mentioned at one point in Korea, video calling cost $11/minute. I can’t imagine carriers bemoaning loss of revenues on video calling plans, since hardly anyone uses it anyway. They might as well cash in on higher data plans, although that hinges a lot on consumers actually being interested in the proposition.
As nice as the Vphone is, there are a few caveats. First, there isn’t much in the way of calling interoperability. Saygus would love to have some kind of deal with Skype, or MSN, or whoever else for video calling to instant messaging clients, but it hasn’t happened yet. The Vphone has got SIP support (which offers reduced quality calls with existing video phones) and they’re working on XDM, but right now the best-case scenario is calling Vphone to Vphone, which is a very specific use case. I asked about them making, say, an app on the Android market to at least allow calling on the same platform, but they said the hit on battery life with a software solution was too rough (1 hour of video talk time versus 4 natively).
The second caveat has to do with Verizon. One of the cool features of the Vphone is that it can act as a Wi-Fi hotspot, sharing an internet connection with up to 8 devices, and you can even tack on one by USB, and another (or more) by Bluetooth. Cool, right? Well you know how Verizon doesn’t allow simultaneous data and voice? That basically kicks the internet sharing right in the crotch – every time you get a call, the internet connection would get shut down (though return once the call was over). Bit of a bummer, but that just means other carriers will be able to make better use this device.
Can’t wait to get a Vphone? It’ll be out by the end of Q1 on a CDMA carrier (again, likely Verizon), and on a GSM carrier by the end of Q2, with an estimated unsubsidized cost of $450. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing if the video calling is actually as good as they say it is.