Video Conferencing – Corporate Quality or Skype?

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 At the law school, we have two Tandberg codecs that the sales folks tell us are outdated at five years old.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

Video Quality

                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 Quality

                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.

Winner: Tie

 

Reliability

                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.)

Winner: Unclear

 

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.

Conclusion

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.

1 Comment

  1. Cory Pavicich said,

    May 11, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Hey Chris, I'm in total agreement on the Skype recommendation, and it was the same advice I gave the same organization in question.

    However, I think I have to disagree with you on the impact of the Microsoft purchase. Given the extraordinary cost of the buyout, I expect that the low costs and easily (free) downloadable software days of Skype are numbered.

    Microsoft paid $8.5 billion for Skype. Rumors are the nearest competitor bid only $4b. With 170 million Skype users that's about $50 per user. Of those users, currently only about 6-7% pay for the service, and Skype lost money last year to the tune of $7 million. How long before the pressure of being an expensive buyout inspires MS to charge more and more frequently for everything that Skype offers?

    And then there is the software model for Microsoft. Let's say that they are going to roll Skype into Outlook/Exchange. Once they develop that software, how long until they can get wide deployment? What about organizations that are still working on deploying Exchange 2007? Can they afford to make it backwards compatible? If they try, can they even make it work? After all, MS still can't figure out how to make Word work on a Mac, and they've been at it for over a decade.

    Again, cheap, web-based video conferencing is the way to go, and Skype is currently the leader and best choice. But I sure wouldn't expect to settle in with them for too long…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>