Competition is hot in mobile video calls

As smartphones improve, the big names join fray

PALO ALTO, Calif. — The next competition in technology is your face — anywhere, any time.

As the cameras and screens of smartphones and tablets improve, and as wireless networks offer higher bandwidth, more companies are getting into the business of enabling mobile video calls.

The details vary from one service to the next, but the experiences are similar: From anywhere in the world with a modern wireless network, a smartphone’s screen fills with the face of a friend or relative. The quality is about the same jerky-but-functional level as most desktop video. Sound is not always perfectly synched with the image, but it is very close.


‘‘All the communications — social messages, calls, texts, and video — are merging fast,’’ said Eric Setton, the cofounder and chief technology officer of Tango Mobile, whose free video calling service has 80 million active users. An additional 200,000 join daily, Setton said.

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Once an interesting endeavor for a few start-ups like ­Tango, mobile video has caught the attention of big companies. Apple created FaceTime and made it a selling point for the iPad. In September, the company made FaceTime available on cellular networks instead of limiting it to Wi-Fi systems, almost certainly in response to increasing consumer demand.

Last week, Yahoo purchased a video chat company called OnTheAir. And in 2011, Microsoft paid $8.5 billion for Skype, a service for both video and ­audio-only calls. Microsoft then built a service for its Windows 8 mobile phone that lets people receive calls even when Skype isn’t on.

The greatest challenge for the business may not be getting more consumers to use the service, but making sure the service works. Most phones have slight variations in things like camera placement and video formatting from one model to the next.

“A camera can show you upside down if you load the wrong software on it,’’ Setton said.


And the prospect of having to appear on-screen at any given moment might sound like a nonstarter for people who worry about bad hair days.