Video calling is terrible and we need interop

17.59, Wednesday 14 Oct 2020

Right now I am super cranky about the lack of interop in the dozen video call and collaboration apps that I use every day – and that, together, this lack of interop makes for a terrible, almost aggressively antisocial experience. What we need is protocols.

Here’s an example of the problem: I was on Google Meet with Ben Redford (of Mayku) this morning, and he wanted to show me something but the software was being wonky. So he started a Zoom call, and sent me a link in Google Meet chat. I tapped the link and jumped to Zoom to join him… but the sound didn’t work. The Meet app was hogging the sound, so I closed that, then switched back to Zoom and we continued.

In an age when I can share my location with my family when we’re meeting up, and I can see them on a map, live, and this is a standard part of the text messages app… why can’t I see my friend go to Zoom and follow him?

So dumb.

Here’s what we should have, in 2020.

  • If I open multiple simultaneous video calls, I should have an option to publicly open a portal between them.
  • Using a portal should cleanly join one call, and end the previous one.
  • Presented with a portal, I should be able to get an impression of who is on the other side, and how active it is there - without needing to actually join the call.

I’m talking about these like hyperlinks between video calls, but they should be from the outside too. The icons on my home screen should appear “noisy” somehow if they’re currently full of my friends. Getting notifications only when I’m direct-mentioned is such a crude mechanism: I want to know where the action is!

These points are in addition to these “dial-tone for video calls” ideas I posted back in March. To summarise:

  • let me call Zoom from FaceTime.
  • let me share with my friends/colleagues where I am virtually, like on a map, so they can come find me if they need me.

And not just for video calls.

On Slack, I should be able to see how busy a workspace is before I jump in. (Not just a notification ping when my name gets mentioned.)

On the map, if my team are busy collaborating in a Google Doc, that should be visible and I should be able to tap to join them.

I should be able to say “follow me” on a phone call, switch app using alt-tab or the home screen to Twitter DMs, or Figma, or Google Docs, or Zoom, or a WhatsApp group, or MakeSpace or whatever comes next, and just have it work.

What I’m talking about here is protocols.

The internet-era folks really got this right. Email system speaks to email system. The code that implements a web server has changed a hundred times, and can come from a thousand companies, and it still works.

But the web-era folks, my generation, really dropped the ball.

I can’t export my photos from iCloud to Google. I can’t message from Discord to WhatsApp. My phone can’t even give me a consolidated “recent calls” list across the half dozen video calling systems I regularly use.

In the ideas above, I’m talking about

  • privacy-preserving presence
  • rich hyperlinks
  • addressing and identity

specifically for video calls, but really all kinds of social software.

These things aren’t rocket science.

All those ideas, every one, can be made to work with very simple agreements about how to exchange data - protocols - that these companies could simply choose to spec and then adopt.

If I were one of the new generation, not internet-era and not web-era but whatever follows it, the people designing and coding the next gen web browsers and video software right now, I would make cooperative protocols my differentiator, and I would start figuring them out today.

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