Oo-la-la! ooVoo Goes Business

Despite recently added screen sharing features, the new business version of ooVoo—an Internet-based video conferencing service launched earlier this year—is still mostly about the video.

In fact, ooVoo’s co-founder and CEO, Philippe Schwartz, tells us somewhat sheepishly that the company’s cutesy name is meant to represent two pairs of eyes on either side of a V for video.

While the screen sharing functionality makes ooVoo more competitive with popular Web conferencing services such as Webex, the company’s main advantage, Schwartz says, is its superior video.

Is ooVoo video superior?

In our testing, both in calls with ooVoo personnel and with friends and family, the quality was noticeably superior to Skype, on a couple of counts—not hugely superior, but noticeably so. Audio was pretty good too. And the ooVoo interface is nicely designed.

We doubt ooVoo is going to knock Skype off its video chat pedestal anytime soon, but it might attract small business users looking for a better and more reliable video experience.

The company claims its “secret sauce” is proprietary technology it developed to solve the problems that plague Internet-based video conferencing—latency, jitter, and, especially, poor synchronization of audio and video.

ooVoo, which has been around since 2007, started by offering a consumer-oriented video chat service. It launched the business service this spring and added screen sharing a few months later.

The business service costs $39.99 a month and includes unlimited usage for up to six participants.

ooVoo calls them ‘seats’ but they’re not assigned to specific individuals. People who are neither employees nor ooVoo account holders can use one of the seats and participate in conferences. Software for the business service includes a console that makes it easy to assign seats.

The business service also eliminates advertising that mars the free and lower-priced services. (The last few test calls we did were accompanied by dental service ads featuring close-ups of the insides of people’s mouths. Yuck. Tip: Combat by dragging the unmaximized video conference window down so ads disappear off the bottom of the screen.)

Of the various ooVoo offerings, only the business service provides screen sharing—although new users signing up to other plans receive a 30-day trial of the feature. Business users also can send up to 25MB of files at a time to the ooVoo server for sharing in a conference. Free users: only 5MB.

For prospective business users who want to start by trying the free version of ooVoo—and we recommend this approach—the sign-up and start-up experience will be familiar from Skype and other video chat services.

Click the Download free ooVoo link on the company’s home page, install the program and then continue the process by signing up for an account.

Be warned: ooVoo attempts to gather more information than some. It insists on having your birth date, for example—so it can enforce a lower age limit on subscribers, it says. Any kid knows, of course, that you can simply lie. We’re probably not the only ooVoo subscriber registered as 109 years old.

Also be careful to click the check box to prevent ooVoo installing its browser toolbar bar—unless, of course, you want it—or making its page your home page.

The main ooVoo program window includes an area on the left which, at start-up, shows Quick Tips, including links to useful features such as camera and audio set-up.

The narrower panel on the right shows a main menu, account status, icons for launching common tasks, tabs for Contacts (open by default at start-up), Web video calls (to non-contacts) and phone keypad.

The interface doesn’t have the pleasing simplicity and airy design of Skype but it’s well enough engineered that we had no difficulty figuring it out quickly.

We also had no difficulty setting up our test system, a Dell XPS M330 laptop with built-in camera, and Plantronics USB telephone headset. It took only minutes.

To launch a video conference, select contacts you want to include—up to six for business subscribers, only one for free users—and click the video call button at the bottom of the panel (see image).

A new window opens with two equal-sized video windows (in a one-to-one call). They’re not quite square and tipped so they appear to be facing each other. (In multi-participant calls, they’re more conventionally stacked in rows.)

One complaint: It’s not possible to make the other party’s video full screen as you can with Skype. (While full screen admittedly makes for a fuzzy image, it may be useful when participants are viewing a small-ish screen from a distance.)

An important feature of the ooVoo technology is that you can include participants who are not ooVoo subscribers, using the Web video call feature. The subscriber e-mails or IMs a link to the other party, who clicks the link, opening an ooVoo page with a browser-based version of the interface from which a video call is automatically placed to the subscriber.

Over about ten test calls with ooVoo, spread over a few months, we experienced no connections that delivered video or audio quality so poor the conference wasn’t viable.

Especially on calls to ooVoo’s headquarters, which not surprisingly has very high-speed Internet service in place and is presumably also close to the company’s servers, quality was excellent.

While using an earlier version of the client software, we did encounter one known bug that caused the application to crash when attempting to launch screen sharing. Installing a newer version of the program solved this problem. ooVoo says it only affected “some” users.

Video images in general were sharper than with Skype. Latency was virtually unnoticeable on most calls.

In one set of test calls with a participant using a very inexpensive webcam, video quality was not as good, but still more than adequate.

Schwartz demonstrated making a call over a 3G network, using his cell phone as a modem connected to a laptop. Again, video quality wasn’t optimal, but was better than we expected. ooVoo adjusts video to accommodate lower-capacity broadband connections.

The most noticeable improvement over other video chat services, including Skype, is in synchronization of audio and video. With some services, mouths move, then you hear the words. ooVoo wasn’t always perfect in this regard, but it was always significantly better than other services we’ve tried.

Audio quality—it’s wideband audio—was at least as good as with Skype on most calls, sometimes better.

Audio was also almost always full duplex. Even with three or four participants, people could interrupt and speak over each other. Both voices were audible, and for the most part understandable. This is not the case with many Skype calls, even one to one.

Screen sharing is very simple. A user with the full client can click a link to share and others on the conference will see most of that person’s desktop. (ooVoo doesn’t transmit the ooVoo client—normally running in a panel on the right of the screen—or the Windows task bar and some other elements it deems unnecessary.)

A red-line frame shows the sharer what others are seeing. We did have momentary difficulty getting PowerPoint to display ‘full-screen’ slides that were all visible to participants. In initial configurations (within PowerPoint), slides extended outside the screen sharing window.

ooVoo is also an instant messaging service. Launching a text chat session opens a separate window. It’s not possible, however, to run a concurrent chat session involving all participants on a call, integrated with the main video conference. Some video/Web conference services can do this.

For companies that believe desktop video conferencing can add an important dimension to meetings, ooVoo is an extremely cost effective and—judging by our limited testing—surprisingly high-quality and reliable solution. It makes especially good sense, perhaps, for small distributed work groups and businesses.

Even if you’re not convinced of the value of this kind of conferencing—and many are not—with ooVoo you can afford to experiment and find out if it delivers any practical benefits.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com/.

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