Multi-Party Videoconferencing from Skype

It's available (in beta—for Windows PCs only), but will it prove more reliable than other Internet-based solutions?

By Jennifer Schiff | Posted Jun 25, 2010
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Video conferencing systems have been available for many years. But until recently they have been notoriously expensive and complicated. A full-blown "telepresence" system can cost as much as several hundred thousand, putting them totally out of the reach of small and medium-size businesses."

In the first decade of this century, however, a number of Internet-based video communications services, such as HearMe, SightSpeed (see our review of these solutions) and ooVoo (see our coverage here), entered the market, making video conferencing much more accessible and affordable to business owners. But despite the lower cost (e.g., $1,000 versus $10,000 a year for a single account), many small business owners feel the price is still too high (especially if you need to hold a video conference with more than a few other people and/or need multiple accounts)—and the quality and reliability of the video too low.

Enter Skype, the popular Internet communications service used by millions of people around the world, for free. For years, Skype users have been asking the company to add group video calling, and in May it finally did so in the form of Skype 5.0 Beta for Windows. Currently, the software is free, making it a very attractive option for small business owners wanting to try out multi-party videoconferencing. But would or should you pay for it when Skype starts charging for the premium feature later this year?

Skype Hype: Is Group Video Calling Too Good to Be True?

Skype acknowledges that the software, which is still in Beta, has some bugs. (See the full release notes for Skype 5.0 Beta for Windows, including known issues.) And for now, it's only available to Windows users, although a Mac version is slated for release later this year. But for many small business owners eager to try multi-party video conferencing, there is little downside to trying out Skype's group video calling (other than it not working)—and the upside is huge.

"Only in Beta, the Skype video [group calling] experience easily matches, and beats, the SightSpeed Business experience…And, as far as ooVoo goes, based on what I've seen of it, well, Skype's own dog food made their finished product…puppy chow," wrote Andy Abramson, the CEO of Communicano, an "asymmetrical" communications agency, on his personal blog recently.

Abramson, who also runs a blog titled Working Anywhere, said having the capability to see colleagues located around the country (or around the world) is critical. "We're a completely virtual agency," he explained. "There's nobody who physically works with each other, so video conferencing has been a godsend, as we can actually see one another without having to travel anywhere." It has also brought him and his co-workers closer together and made everyone more productive.

Peter Csathy, who ran SightSpeed from his home in San Diego, had a similar experience with video. "Video conferencing can be an extremely cost-effective way to build your business," even if you are not in the video conferencing business, he stated. "You can cut down on your business travel, and you [and your team] can work remotely much more effectively," he added. That is, he added, as long as it works.

Bandwidth, Usability and Pricing Issues

Just as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology has improved over the years, so has video over IP, albeit more slowly. That's because of the additional amount of bandwidth video requires, which is why Skype recommends users have a broadband connection. And even if you do have a broadband connection—and a PC running Windows 2000, XP or Vista with at least a 1GHz processor and 256 MB RAM, and the right software, and a webcam—things can still go wrong, as Steve Showalter, the founder and CEO of Statlinx, a medical communications company, knows firsthand.

Showalter, a long-time Skype user, was very excited to learn about group video calling in Skype 5.0. But when he tried to use it, he experienced problems. "It wasn't intuitive enough," he said, and "when you went to conference in the second person, the video would disappear." So, after a couple of tries, he gave up, though he said he would use Skype for one-on-one video chat as well as for multi-party audio conference calls. "In fact, on our last multi-party call, we did the video through WebEx, but we actually used Skype for the audio," he said.

Showalter, a long-time Skype user, was very excited to learn about group video calling in Skype 5.0. But when he tried to use it, he experienced problems. "It wasn't intuitive enough," he said, and "when you went to conference in the second person, the video would disappear." So, after a couple of tries, he gave up, though he said he would use Skype for one-on-one video chat as well as for multi-party audio conference calls. "In fact, on our last multi-party call, we did the video through WebEx, but we actually used Skype for the audio," he said.

Moreover, although Showalter is happy with WebEx, and WebEx's $49/month price tag (for up to 25 people at a time, though only six of whom can use video at a time), he said he would absolutely give Skype's group video calling feature another try once the bugs had been worked out—especially if the software is easy to use, you could chat with more than just four other parties and the price was right.

Want to try it yourself? Download a copy of Skype 5.0 Beta for Windows for free.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff writes about IT and small business issues and runs a blog for and about small businesses.

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