In June, Apple shipped the iPhone 4 with front- and rear-facing cameras, and it added the FaceTime app for video calling. That same month, Sprint began shipping the HTC Evo 4G, its first 4G Android-based smartphone, which also featured front- and rear-facing cameras and the ability to make video calls with an app called Qik.
However, FaceTime has remained an Apple-only tool, limited to the iPhone 4, the new iPod Touch and, thanks to a just-released FaceTime beta app, Apple computers. Moreover, it is only capable of placing video calls when the devices are connected to Wi-Fi networks. Similarly, Qik's real-time video calling is limited to Android phones with front-facing cameras (which currently means the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G). On such phones, Qik supports calling over 3G and 4G networks, and via Wi-Fi (an advantage over Apple's current FaceTime implementation).
Perhaps even more limiting to FaceTime as a communications platform is that it currently doesn't integrate with any of the popular Mac or PC video chat offerings, such as Skype, AIM and Jabber (the open-source protocol that powers Google's IM, voice and video chat). And while Qik's video features can integrate with social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as various blogging platforms, its video calling capabilities do not currently integrate with platforms like Skype, AIM or Jabber.
With these limitations, it isn't surprising that third parties would look to offer alternative video calling options for Apple's iOS operating system, and to deliver a broader range of options for Android. In the past couple of weeks, several challengers have lined up to give FaceTime and Qik a run for their money when it comes to mobile video call capabilities.
Free and popular
Tango is a free app for both iOS and Android that allows video calls to be placed to and from devices on either platform. Launched on Sept. 30, Tango has quickly become one of the most popular downloads from Apple's App Store and it has enjoyed similar success in Google's Android Market.
Despite not being fully OS-integrated like FaceTime, Tango is easy to use and offers the ability to use both the front and rear cameras of a device during a video call. This allows not just a traditional face-to-face video call but also the ability to show surroundings (or other people, objects or documents) during the call -- features also offered by FaceTime and Qik.
What's different, however, is that Tango can also be used on devices with only rear-facing cameras. Obviously, without a front-facing camera, you won't be able to see the other party and have them see you at the same time (unless you're standing in front of a mirror). But there are potential uses here: showing your parents photos of the grandkids, helping a remote colleague participate in a meeting or presentation by seeing what you're seeing or even troubleshooting a technical problem remotely.
Another plus for Tango is that it works over 3G (and 4G, if it's available) and Wi-Fi. Given FaceTime's current Wi-Fi-only restriction, that can be a big plus.
Testing video calls
The Tango video calls I tested over 3G between an Evo on Sprint and an iPhone 4 on AT&T were of noticeably lower quality than calls on either device over Wi-Fi. Calls were passable at best, frustratingly full of jitters, pauses and other artifacts at worst. Also, for iPhone owners dealing with AT&T's tiered data plans, 3G could get expensive (unless users are grandfathered into AT&T's earlier unlimited plan).
Video calling over Wi-Fi with Tango was better. It wasn't as consistently good as video calling with FaceTime tends to be, but it was relatively good many times and passable most (but not quite all) of the time. The testers I talked to who have used Qik on Sprint's 4G network (which isn't available in my area) equated Tango with 4G calling on the Evo in general.
Tango is a bit rough around the edges compared to FaceTime because it isn't so tightly integrated into the iPhone's Phone app or the iPhone/iPod Touch Contacts app. That's to be expected of any third-party option. It is, however, somewhat easier to set up than Qik video calling.
Tango relies on its own database of users. When first launched, the app will scan the contacts on a device for matches against its database and then add the individuals who are Tango users to the app's built-in contacts manager. This process can be repeated later as a way of checking if new or existing contacts have become Tango users.
Overall, Tango is a well-designed app that works fine on both the iOS and Android platforms. It doesn't bring much new to the table beyond multiplatform calling, but that alone makes it worth a try.
Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor.