The reality of video conferencing 10 years or even 5 years ago was a pipe dream for the casual home user. It wasn’t a robust solution with tons of problems involving firewalls, port settings, compatibility between clients, etc. It was a possibility in the domain of the elite few corporations with big internet pipes and specialized and “matched” equipment. Fast forward to 2008 and here we are in a world where video conferencing has matured enough to the point where the casual user can implement it with little to no fuss.
I was playing with the idea in my head of video conferencing on the desktop for strictly personal purposes. How realistic was this and if so, how well would it work? Back in 1995, this technology was highly experimental for the hobbyist. When I coin the term as highly-experimental, I talk about when configuring any type of solution required some pretty snazzy audio cards, a specialized/dedicated video capture card and some software you’d have to fork over some cold, hard, cash for and once you did, you’d have an image no larger than 1″ x 1″ on your screen if you were lucky.
Since those days, alot has changed. The advent of Instant Messaging (IM) technologies have changed this to some large degree. It seemed a natural extension of text-based IM messaging to include first voice and shortly-after video. The availability of Web-Cams was prevalent throughout the market and as broadband took hold in America, the reality of usable video conferencing was quickly becoming a panacea easily within reach.
All the major IM vendors implemented some sort of Voice and/or Video, but very few were successful based on the implementation of what is still today a nasty technology; PAT or Port Address Translation was the big problem. All the major consumer router vendors like Linksys, Dlink, SMC, etc. all implemented this technology and sold it as “Firewall” functionality. Couple this with the Virus scare and you have what would truly be a veritable mess that impeded the progress of this technology.
The IM vendors didn’t think it would be difficult to just have the customer forward some ports on their routers, but the reality was most people didn’t even bother configuring their routers. It was simply a plug and play solution. They would buy it, unpack it, plug it in, and go in most cases.
This brings us to the purpose of this article. How well does it work today assuming the paradigm hasn’t changed? (The reality is it hasn’t.. most people don’t have a clue as to how to configure their routers).
The IM vendors got smart and realized the applications needed to be compatible with PAT or NAT that wasn’t configured properly. A few vendors out there still have these issues, but the one vendor that got it right was Skype. These guys designed the application to be simple to use and for the most part, trouble free.
I have a pfsense firewall with a very tight ruleset. I have PAT implemented and very little gets past my firewall. I tend to break applications, but I’m pretty safe on my corporate network. I had a need for video conferencing and decided to look into the possible alternatives.
I tried AIM, WebEX, and Skype. So here’s my quickie review of these products.
AIM: Installed flawlessly, recognized the camera, but couldn’t receive or send video.
WebEX: While it did work, the Video Conferencing functionality was very slow and pictures would tend to freeze.
Skype: Ultra-Smooth Video, things just worked.
So in conclusion, Skype is pretty damn slick and it works. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t require alot of configuration headache, I would move forward with this solution. Video Conferencing is free for Skype to Skype. 2 Thumbs up.