October 2016 may come to be known as the month the desktop died.
It was in that month that smartphone and tablet internet browsing overtook desktop use for the first time, accounting for 51% of global traffic. The desktop remained slightly ahead in the UK and U.S., but worldwide, the smartphone’s rise to prominence–which unofficially began less than a decade earlier with the launch of the iPhone–was complete.
The e-commerce industry feels this landmark most keenly, as it must now make sure its websites are optimized for mobile. The changeover has wider repercussions, though.
Computer peripherals maker Logitech, for instance, is presented with a future in which one of its key products–the webcam–could become obsolete. The appeal of the smartphone is its convenience, and though the built-in camera of your phone can’t match the quality of a webcam, it’s a lot simpler to use and easier to carry around.
Logitech’s answer seems to be that people will use a webcam for video conferencing on smartphones if it will give them the presentation of a big screen video call within the confines of a smartphone-sized space–but that might be underestimating the evolution of mobiles.
Huddle Not Cuddle
Logitech’s vision for keeping webcams relevant in a smartphone world was revealed by its Director of Product Strategy, Simon Dudley during a recent promotional visit to India. There to launch the MeetUp webcam, Dudley said the company accepted that mobiles were the future of computing, and that smartphone battery and processing power were only three to five years away from being able to deliver the full video conferencing experience. You can already use a webcam on your phone through a USB connection, but the small mobile CPUs can’t match a desktop-to-desktop call, and many video calling apps (see our ooVoo video chat review) have fewer features on their smartphone versions.
The saving grace for the webcam, Dudley said, is that 97% of business meeting rooms are not yet equipped for video conferencing, leaving companies to employ temporary mobile devices within smaller huddle rooms. These devices, such as laptops and tablets, have small cameras that make group video calls logistically awkward. What Logitech is proposing is that wide-angle webcams be paired with these devices to capture the entire room. It wouldn’t improve the images a caller receives, but it would present them in a better light to their audience.
“In our marketing we have a slogan, that’s Huddle Don’t Cuddle,” Dudley said. “Use a simple laptop camera and the person sitting next to you might not be in the frame.”
The problem with that prediction is that it assumes the smartphone camera won’t improve along with its processing power.
Video Conferencing on Smartphones May Improve with Cameras
If it will take smartphone manufacturers another three to five years to make a processor fast enough to handle high-end video conferencing, that gives them up to five more iterations to improve the built-in camera. And they’re doing pretty well at the moment.
The LG C6, for example, already features a wide-angle lens capable of capturing a panorama wider than the human eye. It’s intended for holiday snaps and not optimized for live streaming video, but it’s a good start. Similarly, phones like the iPhone 7 Plus are capable of high dynamic range photography–which uses multiple lenses to combine several shots into a single image–just as Logitech’s advanced Brio webcam does.
Given that technology, it seems unlikely a wide-angle, better resolution camera is going to save the webcam from the march of the smartphones. What the webcam may have to do is learn to stand alone.
An All-in-One Webcam
The big boardroom-style of video conferencing, with its large screen TVs and array of microphones, looks well out of reach of any smartphone intrusion, since pocket-sized smartphone screens will forever be too small to satisfy a large audience. So there’s plenty of space there for the long-term survival of the webcam, at least the large-scale models.
The bigger threat to webcams, at least from the business side, comes from people calling in to meetings from impromptu places, and those communicating from small group to small group.
To suit that section of the business crowd, a webcam may have to become a standalone product that uses a smartphone as an internet hotspot. Both Android and iPhone mobiles can be used as wifi broadcasting antennas, capable of supplying a webcam with internet access. That could leave the webcam to evolve into both camera and screen, something like the Amazon Echo Show. The device looks and acts dangerously like a tablet, but could become a dedicated video caller with its processing doing little else. It might find a place as a shared tool within an office, used by colleagues when the moment arises. At any rate, it would offer superior (for now) imagery, a bigger screen, and more power for advanced video calling features, like background replacement tech or augmented reality.
Ultimately, it looks like the video calling world will be divided between the convenience of smartphones, and the presence of large screen conferencing, with webcams limited to home offices and semi-permanent huddle rooms. The webcam as we know it may be too tightly bound to the aging desktop setup to survive long-term.