My 73-year-old mother started using a computer three years ago. After a few hiccups she became an avid fan, hooked on her ability to keep in touch with her children and thrilled that she could enlarge the type on her favorite news sites.
What really changed the game for her though was discovering Skype. Not the audio only, computer-to-computer calls she could make but the video conferencing that's now become part of her weekly ritual.
Her brother lives in Nuremberg, Germany. Pre-Skype they'd talk by phone a few times a year. Now they ping each other weekly to chat about life, family and 70-year-old things. She pings my brother's Chicago-based family to get facetime with her grandchildren. She Skypes me to make sure I've shaved.
She does all this from a five-year-old iMac demonstrating that you don't need the latest and greatest hardware to do this. Any relatively decent, relatively recent Mac or PC will do.
And starting soon, so too will television.
At last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Skype made two somewhat related announcements. The first is that they're increasing their overall video quality to 720p high definition. This is slightly better than DVD quality and a bit worse than the 1080p you get on your HD television channels. Second, PG and Panasonic are adding Skype to their new Internet enabled televisions.
As usual, calls between Skype enabled devices will be free. Calls from Skype to landlines will not be.
The components being sold alongside the televisions sound neat. For example, the microphones are made to pick up normal speaking voices from approximately "couch distance." The video camera/microphone set-up will cost between $100-$200.
"TVs will no longer be just the center of people's entertainment experience," hopes Skype CEO Josh Silverman, "but have the potential to be the center of people's communications experience."
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a call to an increasingly sedentary, couch potato future. But as our eyes dim, seeing friends and family on the big screen will be great. Better yet, no more crowding around a computer just to say hello.