Many SMBs have become convinced of the value of both seeing and talking to people during a phone call. And at least some of them may find the latest videophones from companies like Polycom and Grandstream Networks to be just what they need. With bright color LCD displays, megapixel-plus cameras and wideband audio, such devices provide clear images and superb sound. Telepresence Systems offer an even better experience.
Others, though, may find such gear impractical. For one thing, it can be expensive — as much as $1,000 or more for some high-end desk phones, and lots more for telepresence equipment. Companies may find that kind of spending difficult to justify in hard economic times, even if it can theoretically help cut travel expenses. In addition, their employees may spend a lot of time working from home, or otherwise away from their desks and their shiny videophones. And even when employees are at their desks, if they're calling outsiders such as customers, the person at the other end of the call may not have compatible equipment.
Fortunately, a number of services now let users make video calls and even conduct multiparty video conferences using only Internet-connected, Web cam-equipped PCs with speakers and microphones or headsets.
1. ooVoo: OoVoo offers one of the more convenient and elegant solutions around, in both free and for-pay "premium" versions. It requires a download of client software to users' Macintosh or Window PCs. The application lets users make video calls, record and send video messages (or at least email links to them), and set up video chat rooms. Users can also send links or post call-me buttons that let outsiders without ooVoo software initiate video calls to the users via their Web browsers.
The free version, though, will have limited usefulness to SMBs. It restricts video messages to one minute, and calls to one other participant. Premium users, by contrast, can send five-minute messages and conduct calls with up to six participants. They can also record calls and transfer files during calls. And they can make outbound calls to the PSTN (public switched telephone network), which lets them include participants using regular phones in their conferences. Premium service costs $7.95 per month for three-way calls, $12.95 for four-way calls and $17.95 for six-way calls. Outbound calls to regular phones cost $9 per month for 500 minutes or $15 for 1,000 minutes.
2. SightSpeed: Logitech's SightSpeed service too offers free and paid versions of video calling/conferencing, though the free version isn't free for long and the paid version isn't cheap. Making free one-to-one video calls requires downloading Logitech's Vid software for Mac or Windows PCs and registering with the Vid service. But registrants then receive an email message saying that their Vid trial will expire in 30 days, and that to make it permanent they have to buy and install a Logitech Web camera.
SightSpeed's paid professional service provides conferencing for up to nine participants, video messages, click-to-call buttons for voice or video, an administrative console, call recording, file sharing and 500 minutes of outbound U.S. voice calling. But the cheapest plan costs $19.95 per month (or $189.95 per year) for a single seat, with five seats going for $89.95 per month ($895.95 per year), 10 seats for $149.95 ($1,495.95), and 50 seats for $695.95 ($6,995.95).
3. TokBox: TokBox requires no software download, since it works through Web browsers using Flash technology. It's free and easy to use, but it's clearly aimed at consumers, and young consumers at that. Business users will in fact want to avoid its public posts section altogether. Nonetheless, its simplicity makes TokBox convenient for more serious users wishing to set up video conferences on the fly, especially since it works from any PC one might be using. Conferences have a practical limit of about six participants. Like ooVoo and SightSpeed, TokBox allows users to send or post click-to-call links or buttons that let others reach them by video call, and to record video messages and email them to others in the form of links.
4. Skype: Skype video calling offers the same benefits as Skype voice calling: It's free, it employs excellent technology and it lets users potentially reach hundreds of millions of others. It works through Skype's standard client software, which is available for Linux, Mac and Windows platforms. Users need merely click the video button while in a Skype call, or adjust the settings so video starts automatically during calls. It only supports two-way video connections, though, in contrast to Skype's voice conferencing, which allows up to 25 participants. Companies that have no hesitations about using Skype voice calling will undoubtedly be comfortable with Skype video as well.
5. Raketu: Raketu, a provider of Web-based VoIP, SMS and other services, has always been Windows-oriented, and its SMB-oriented video calling and conferencing feature is no exception. Windows users can download client software to their PCs, but everyone else has to use the Flash-based browser version. Either way, the service is free and supports up to five video-conference participants. All the versions work together, so a Windows user with the client app can talk to Linux or Mac users communicating through their browsers. Video calls can even include users of some iPhone, Nokia and Windows Mobile smart phones.
6. iChat: Given that video calling and other Internet communication services often favor Windows users, it's only fair to have one that puts Mac users first. That would be iChat, and it fell to Apple to offer it on its own. In addition to supporting video calls, the SIP-based application also works as an IM client for AIM and Jabber instant messaging services.
7. Yahoo Messenger: Yahoo Messenger is a good example of how instant messaging services are making themselves more attractive and useful by adding voice and video calling. It uses downloadable Mac and Windows client software along the lines of Skype. Starting a video call is as easy as clicking the Web cam icon at the top of a chat window when launching a session with another Yahoo Messenger user. The video function should appeal most to those who already depend on the IM service for daily communication.
8. Google Talk: Google Talk voice and video similarly represent the addition of streaming real-time communications to an existing instant messaging service. Unlike Yahoo Messenger, though, Google Talk provides video calling only through a Web interface (with the help of a downloaded plug-in for Mac or Windows). Users must click on chat contacts in their GMail Web pages to launch video calls. Google Talk does offer a downloadable client for Windows users, but it only supports IM chats and voice communication, not video. Again, the video function should be most attractive to those who have made GMail a central part of their communication strategy.
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