Article: The Death of iChat?

by on October 22, 2010

With Apple’s introduction of FaceTime for the Mac Wednesday, and the MacBook Air’s “FaceTime camera”, rather than an “iSight camera”, it’s obvious the direction the company is moving with its two-way video products on the Mac. The big question is what does this mean for iChat?

A Brief History

iChat was released with Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar) way back in 2002. This was a time when the only official AIM client was still running in Classic, and AOL dragging its feet, causing Apple to do it themselves. A year later, iChat AV was included with Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) and used industry-standard technologies to carry audio and video over an AIM account. The next version came with Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) and added H.264 video (better quality) and multiple people in a single video chat. The fourth version was part of Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) and included things like iChat Theater, Backdrops, Screen Sharing, and “tabbed” chats. The current version added and changed a few features, but remains close to the prior one.

FaceTime is Introduced

When FaceTime was introduced with the iPhone 4, many expected it to be incorporated into a future version of iChat. However, as of Wednesday’s announcement, FaceTime looks like it will be a separate application and has an entirely different philosophy to iChat. It seems that only one will eventually be included with future Mac OS X updates, and I’m betting it’s the one without any sort of textual communication.


iChat works like a typical IM client with audio and video functions bolted on. A person’s presence is listed on a buddy list, so you can tell if they’re available or not. The default means of communications is text. It’s passive, multiple at once (how many times have you been IMing three people at once?), and great for a casual, unplanned conversation. How many times have you seen someone become available in your buddy list and decided to say “hey”? We understand it and it has worked well. Video and audio chats are often engaged after a bit of text IMs have been exchanged.

FaceTime, on the other hand, works exactly like on an iPhone or iPod touch. You don’t know what people are doing when you decide to call them. It works more like a phone, which is something people also understand. In some ways, the conversations are more intentional due to the lack of away/available/idle states. Audio and text chats do not exist.

The Facebook Equation

One thing that has really hurt iChat is the popularity of Facebook. So many people have forgotten about their favorite IM service and exchanging screennames in favor of the built-in chat service. All your friends appear and you can talk to them using their real names. Sure, this can be accomplished with iChat, but it requires Address Book entries and adding contacts’ screennames. I know from my own experience that many people I know have all but stopped using AIM, Jabber, or GTalk for text chats in favor of the ‘Book.

Which Will Win?

Obviously Apple is wanting people to use FaceTime on anything they can. Compared to iChat’s current range of features, FaceTime looks downright pathetic. That being said, the video quality is quite nice and being able to call a phone or iPod from a Mac is great. Unfortunately, people have to add phone numbers (iPhone only) or email addresses (Mac or iPod only) to their contact lists to get in touch with others on FaceTime, but email addresses and phone numbers are not going away any time soon.

Unless Apple builds things like text chats into FaceTime, it seems that iChat may be killed off eventually in favor of letting people choose their own text chat service. If you recall, Apple let AOL create AIM for iOS devices, despite people asking and asking for iChat for the iPhone. Since iOS has been indicating the future of Mac OS X recently, IChat’s days may be numbered.

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