I was recently asked by the Dean of another School what I advised today regarding video conferencing. The choice was either corporate video conferencing with a hardware CoDec that goes for over $10,000 or a Skype connection which is computer based and goes for free.
[First, a note: I wrote these thoughts two morning's ago, which as anyone in this field will tell you, is a lifetime. It was announced yesterday that Microsoft has purchased Skype the company. The question arises then if I would still advise choosing Skype as much as I do below. I think I would. I think MS funding will only help Skype grow and mature. Now, on to the discussion!]
There are certainly valid arguments for spending the money to get a high-end corporate-quality video conference system, but Skype is almost as good technologically and it’s getting better all the time. At the law school, we have two Tandberg codecs that the sales folks tell us are outdated at five years old. We’re not about to replace them since they are still working just fine and, more significantly, since we are using Skype instead in many cases.
I see Four main issues when comparing corporate-quality video conferencing with Skype and its relatives.
Issue 1: Quality of the call
A dedicated corporate-quality video conferencing unit (often called a CoDec) connected to another corporate quality video conferencing unit will produce a better image than a Skype connection on the same network. The difference will be noticeable. The question arises regarding how important it is to have a high definition video signal. It’s very nice, but I think it’s not necessary in most cases.
Winner: Corporate Quality Video Conferencing
Audio is so easy to send over the internet nowadays that I think there will be no difference in the audio when comparing the two types of system. It all really comes down to the quality of the microphones and speakers on both sides.
This is the main issue. The important point here is that in almost all cases, you’re going to be connecting between the points via the internet (TCP/IP). If you use Skype, you can plug in to the same wired network jack as you can via a corporate video conferencing unit. There is a difference though. With the corporate video conferencing, the connection is between the two units — routed through the internet, but connecting point-to-point. With Skype, the connection is through the Skype servers: both parties connect to Skype and the call is routed by Skype. In theory, then, the point-to-point connection is better. In practice, however, we’ve found this issue to be negligible and in some cases it seems that just the opposite to be true. I don’t know why, but it seems that the Skype servers help the connection in some cases. (Please don’t repeat this very last statement as it just doesn’t make any technical sense … it’s in the realm of voodoo.)
Issue 2: Convenience for person on the other side.
In the majority of the cases, Skype is more convenient for the person on the other end. They can just go to Skype.com and follow the prompts. Many people have built-in cameras on their computers now. If they don’t, they need to go buy a camera (or you need to mail one to them) at a cost of $35-$50.
The corporate video conference solutions require both ends to have compatible equipment, and because of firewall issues and the nature of the point-to-point connection, it’s always important to do a trial call a few days before just to make sure it will work. If the person on the other side isn’t at a place with a video conference system, they’ll need to go to one. One option for this is for the person to go to a commercial video conference facility. These seem to be going out of vogue, but many Kinkos still have them. Cost is about $150 per hour for this service. There is also at least one commercial network of video conference facilities that charge similar rates.
One counter note: The techies at CAETE (the distance learning arm of Engineering) have opted to avoid Skype because they say it is confusing for some users. Skype requires each user to have a Skype username and to log in to Skype to receive the call. While we have found this not to be a problem, they have. They have opted for some sort of hybrid where on the CU end they have a corporate quality codec, and on the other end, the user downloads and installs some software. (That feels the same as Skype to me but they say it is different).
Winner: Skype by far (but others may argue)
Issue 3: Cost
At free, Skype wins here.
Issue 4: Perception around Installation
A big corporate video conference unit, either “portable” on a big cart with a big screen or built-in to a conference room, looks very impressive. The important part here, though, is that you can accomplish the same thing with a skype set up. In the end you really have the same pieces:
Piece 1: Monitor
This is needed with either set up. With Skype, it can just be a laptop monitor. With corporate video conferencing it MUST be an external monitor or projector. But with Skype, it can be the same big external monitor.
Piece 2: Computer or CoDec
This is the part that does the work. With corporate video conferencing, it’s the CoDec box. With Skype it’s the computer.
Piece 3: Camera
The better the camera, the better the image you send out. For Skype, a high-def little camera costs about $100. I’m not sure of the costs of video conferencing cameras but I think they’re around $500. There is a difference though — the corporate ones typically can pan-zoom-tilt via remote control. The computer ones are typically just mounted.
Piece 4: Microphone
This is important either way. On Skype, the fancy external cameras have a mic built-in. It’s worth experimenting to get the best one.
Piece 5: Internet connection
It’s better to plug-in to the ethernet jack if possible (required on the corporate video conference units). Skype allows flexibility to go via wireless network connection if necessary.
Winner: Tie if you pay attention either way: Corporate quality video conferencing requires attention to all of these pieces, but Skype can benefit from the same.
Skip corporate-style video conferencing. Get Skype. Install your hardware in the same way you would with a corporate video conferencing solution so it looks all slick and nice.
Another benefit to this solution: if Skype isn’t the best choice tomorrow, you can easily switch to the new software of choice. Or run both on the same machine. No problem at all. You’re buying flexibility.