FaceTime Audio Is Apple’s Biggest Little Feature Addition In iOS 7

Quietly, gradually, but clearly Apple is building platform lock-in into its iOS products, with some features that are deeper than just a rich third-party software ecosystem. FaceTime Audio is the latest of these, VoIP calling built on the back of its FaceTime video chat service, which is tightly integrated to the phone app to make placing free international calls almost a pleasant surprise for those looking to connect with far-flung loved ones.

FaceTime Audio joins iMessage as another reason to sign on with the Apple camp and get an iPhone or iPad device, and then never to depart again. It’s a little odd to see it arrive so much later than FaceTime’s video calling feature, but the reversal of feature rollout makes a lot of sense ; audio-only calls are uncomfortably close to standard phone calls, which is still one of the sole remaining areas that carriers control.

Apple delivering FaceTime Audio later, as an update to its original FaceTime service probably allowed it more time to mollify carrier partners, and the climate has changed around mobile software and services, too. There’s a new emphasis on data, and OEMs helping carriers drive sales of their own data products, so in that context Apple’s VoIP ambitions are less of a land grab and more of a helpful addition that furthers everyone’s goals.

For many users, FaceTime Audio is going to be nothing short of a revelation. Already, it’s my most-used new feature in iOS 7 with the exception maybe of Control Center. It helps that I’m currently in a different country than most of my friends and family, but it’s not like mine is an isolated case. And unlike in the U.S., carriers in other countries like Canada charge long distance for calling outside of your town or city, let alone for those calls across international borders.

Critics will say that services like Google’s Gmail calling and Skype have offered free international or long-distance calling for years, but Apple’s service is integrated directly into a user’s Phone, Contacts, Messages and FaceTime apps, which they’re already comfortable using, and doesn’t require having a separate account or third-party app open. That makes an immense difference in terms of barriers to usage for people who may not be all that technologically savvy. My less expert family members are already extremely comfortable with FaceTime Audio and how it works, not even a week into the feature’s launch, even if they’d never managed to make a habit of using Skype in the past.

Like BBM once was for BlackBerry, iMessage provides a considerable amount of incentive for users to stay, especially if they have a lot of friends and family also using iOS devices. FaceTime Audio serves the same purpose, and finally destabilizes some of the more draconian practices of carriers charging for so-called “long distance” calls that in actual fact look no different to their infrastructure or back-end, but are sold as “premium” services. It’s a small change, but an amazing one, and represents Apple seeding its users with features that take root and endear them to the platform for a long time to come.