Tuning In Free Video Conferencing

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Skype 4.0, ooVoo, Tokbox and Mebeam aim to make video conferencing simple, but are any of them good enough for business use? Solution Providers will find that limitations abound, creating up-sell opportunities.

Reduced travel budgets, cheap technology and ample broadband connections have helped to create interest in simple video conferencing solutions. Skype has led the way in building that interest with a new release of the product and Skype’s video service being used by popular TV shows, such as Oprah Winfrey, Millionaire and others.

With a renewed emphasis on video, it only makes sense for businesses to consider using many free products for ad-hoc video conferencing. While the list of free video conferencing services is growing, it is still pretty hard to beat Skype as a starting point for diving into the intricacies of desktop PC-based video conferencing, especially now that version 4 has arrived.

But, there are a couple of catches – Skype is only free for Skype to Skype calls and Skype only supports one-to-one video conferencing. Those limitations have greased the wheels for other players to grab some mindshare and Skype is no longer the only game in town.

Solution providers will find that instant profits may be hard to come by and appreciable margins may be a thing of the past, yet video conferencing still proves to be an excellent way to demonstrate advanced capabilities and pave the way for commercial solutions.

Aggressive integrators will choose to roll out some of those free services just to introduce a business to IP video conferencing and demonstrate the value of the service. After all, video conferencing is a lot like crisps, you can’t just have one.

The following is Channel Insider’s analysis of the leading free video conferencing options available to solution providers.

Skype 4.0

Skype 4.0 brings some significant improvements to the product – enhanced video and audio quality, full-screen video and an easy-to-use interface. The product also incorporates a bandwidth manager, which improves the user experience over slow-speed connections.

There are a few prerequisites to get started with Skype 4.0. Users will need a compatible computer (usually a Windows PC, but some products also support Macintosh and Linux), a broadband connection, a Webcam (many portable PCs have these built-in) and a headset (although not necessary, a headset is recommended).

With Skype, getting started is pretty easy – it takes little more than downloading the client software, installing the product, creating an account and integrating the peripherals. Skype has this down to science and it does prove to be the easiest way to get started.

Usability with Skype is excellent – users that are configured properly just need to click on a contact to initiate a voice or video call. Video calls are very high quality, as long as a quality Webcam is used. The audio portion of the call is clear; built-in microphone will suffice for locations with low background noise. For noisier environments, users may want to use a headset or a noise cancelling Bluetooth headset, either of which will give audio quality superior to most cell phones.

Skype 4.0 can be enhanced with add-ons from a library of extras. Dozens of extras are available, ranging from the silly (Gizmoz Talking Heads) to the very useful (Yugama SE Team Collaboration).

Most users will want to install a few of those extras – the most usable free extras include Pamela Call Recorder (records audio of calls), PamFax (adds fax capabilities), Convenos Meeting Centre Extra (full-featured Web conferencing), InnerPass Share and Collaborate (file sharing, screen sharing and meeting rooms) and Supertintin Video Call Recorder (records both video and audio in Skype). Solution providers will find it’s the extras that will make Skype much more than a simple VoIP client with video capabilities. Those extras will only help to legitimise VoIP and video conferencing solutions, leaving the customer wanting something more and probably willing to pay for it.

ooVoo

Similar to Skype, ooVoo is a client-based video conferencing software package that comes in two versions; a free service called ooVoo Standard and a monthly subscription services called ooVoo Super. The standard version is supplemented by an advertising window, which occupies a rectangular section at the bottom of the client window. The free version supports three concurrent video calls, while the paid version increases that count to six.

ooVoo uses a software client that is installed on the user’s PC (Windows and Mac systems are supported). ooVoo proves to be just as easy to use as Skype, but it doesn’t have the breadth of add-ins that Skype offers. That said, the product still offers some impressive features, such as the ability to send “video e-mails,” invite non-ooVoo users to a conference using only a browser connection, multiple concurrent callers, session recording and video chat rooms. ooVoo video and audio quality slightly surpasses Skype, but the embedded advertising can be annoying and takes up valuable screen real estate. Recorded sessions also exhibit high quality and are saved in .AVI format, files can grow quite large when set to high resolution mode.

For most users, ooVoo is the best way to introduce newbies to advanced video conferencing, but many may be put off by the embedded advertising and other limitations, quickly outgrowing the product. Users wanting to avoid the advertising supported model may create opportunities for solution providers looking for an up-sell opportunity.

TokBox.com

TokBox differs in many ways from Skype and ooVoo. The service is a Web-based application that integrates with popular IM clients and requires no installation. Users simply create an account on the TokBox.Com site and then use a Web 2.0 application to launch their IM session. Users can log in to AIM, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger.

For video and audio communications, TokBox uses a custom Flash application, which can access the PCs webcam and microphone. Users can launch one on one video chats or start video conferences and invite multiple users. One nifty feature of the product is the use of Adobe AIR, which works like a Web-based application for those without TokBox accounts. A TokBox user can invite non-users to video conferences by sending a URL, which the invitee launches in their browser. That user then becomes part of the video conference. As with the other video conferencing product, users will need a webcam, microphone and a PC that meets TokBox’s minimum specifications.

TokBox video quality is pretty good, although frame rates tended to drop off quickly when more attendees are added to a conference. Audio quality proved to be very poor when not using a headset, there was substantial echo and background noise. Those problems are solved by using a quality headset.

TokBox doesn’t offer many collaboration features, users are not able to share desktops, run slide shows or use a common whiteboard. That said, there are plenty of third-party tools and services that can bring those features using a mashup style of implementation. TokBox is definitely worth a look, but users should expect to use it like a multi-participant video chat service and not much more.

MeBeam

Those looking to create video conferences with MeBeam should be come equipped with low expectations. MeBeam is browser based and is pretty much a one-trick pony. Video conferences are initiated by the host visiting www.mebeam.com and creating a unique conference room. The meeting leader informs others of the name of the room and those guests will access that meeting room via the MeBeam website.

Users will find video is low quality with low-frame rates; audio is poor quality and a headset is a must for any voice communications.

MeBeam uses a Flash-based application to access video and audio from participating computers. Controls are very limited and additional functions are nonexistent. A word of caution with MeBeam; the site offers a “random room” feature from the home page, click on that and you may wind up in a video conference that you really don’t want to be in.

While the free tools here are pretty impressive, especially considering the price, solution providers selling professional video conferencing solutions have little to worry about. None of the services offer features that would meet all of the needs of a business looking for professional video conferencing. That also applies to services like SightSpeed (fee based for multiple users), Palbee (now defunct) and even DimDim (free video chat).

Of course, if a solution provider is looking to demonstrate the capabilities offered by video conferencing, a free product may be just the ticket. If you had to pick on service, we recommend ooVoo; the price is hard to beat and it covers the basics best.