Moving up a notch are Web-chat services that provide a way to include more than two people on a chat. Some of these services offer extra features, such as conference recording, high-definition video streams and some administrative functions, but they lack a network infrastructure that ensures smooth video. This category includes services such as ooVoo, SightSpeed and Skype's new five-way video chat service; I tested Skype and ooVoo.
Skype recently introduced group videoconferencing in beta versions of its 5.0 software. I tested the five-way calling that was available at the time; more recently, Skype announced that Skype 5.0 Beta 2 supports 10-way calling, although the company suggests that users limit calls to five participants during the beta period. The group-calling beta is currently available for Windows and Mac computers.
Multiparty calling gives Skype a leg up on IM chat clients, but it generally offers the same quality -- the service looks less crisp than a high-def video stream.
Skype has the largest user base of any voice carrier -- 560 million, according to its last quarterly earnings report as part of eBay.com -- so it's very likely that business clients and colleagues will already have the application installed.
To test group video calling, I connected with four other Skype video users and even added two more Skype audio participants. I was using a 3Mbit/sec. connection in my home office; most others were on corporate T1 lines.
For the most part, Skype worked well for the video chats. The color quality was not quite as high as with the ooVoo service, but it did maintain a smooth and consistent video stream at all times, without stuttering or faltering. Skype frequently sacrificed quality to maintain that connection -- i.e., the screen sometimes looked fuzzy or bitmapped -- but that's a good trade-off in my book.
The Skype interface is both familiar and easy to use -- if you are used to Skype for audio calls, the video features are just as readily accessible, with obvious buttons for starting and ending a call. Unlike ooVoo, however, Skype does not allow screen sharing during group chats or the ability to record calls; recording calls is a feature planned for a future release, according to the company.
Two-person video chats on Skype are free, while group video calling requires at least one party on the call to have a Skype Premium subscription, which costs US$8.99 per month. You can try group calling for free for seven days.
Skype also offers a business version of the service with a management tool that lets you control various features, monitor usage and dole out calling credits to employees. That version also includes a beta of the group calling feature, starting at US$8.99 per month (also with free seven-day trial). You can pay extra for business voice mail and features such as call forwarding within your workplace; pricing varies for these services.
Yankee Group's Felten says Skype is a useful but imperfect tool. For many business customers, it falls into the same category as Yahoo Messenger because it does not provide an immersive telepresence experience. And like other desktop videoconferencing services, Skype is dependent on the participants' connections rather than a centralized network infrastructure for quality and latency control, so the quality may dip for all participants when poor connections are added to a videoconference.
"Visual cues are only useful if they are in real time," Felten says. "In a classic conference call with sound clues only, it's tough to immediately grasp who is talking. Video can help there, but only if audio and video are in perfect sync. The fact of the matter is that if you cram five Skype video feeds on a regular broadband connection, the quality is usually not there."
The ooVoo video call service, which works with Windows and Mac computers, supports six-way video chats. It also lets you add up to six additional audio callers for a total of 12 participants.
OoVoo video quality was noticeably superior to that of both Yahoo Messenger and Skype. Using a 3Mbit/sec. connection, I connected to six video callers and two audio callers at the same time. The service maintained a mostly smooth stream without the jagged appearance of Yahoo Messenger, and the color quality was noticeably better than with Skype and Yahoo Messenger.
However, Skype did a better job of making sure the connection kept running, even if the quality dipped during a videoconference. OoVoo would occasionally pause the video stream for a half-second.
OoVoo adds a few features not found in other desktop-level videoconferencing tools. With high-end videoconferencing and telepresence products, you can often record a meeting and save it for training purposes. OoVoo offers this same functionality with just a quick click of a button. You can also tweet meeting invites, and even invite people who don't have the ooVoo software installed to participate in video chats using a Web browser.
OoVoo offers two-party video chats for free, with a range of pricing plans for more participants, from the three-way plan (US$9.95 per month) through the six-way plan (US$19.95 per month) that I tested. Business plans start at US$39.95 and add a few extras, such as priority customer service and the ability to share your desktop screen.
Overall, ooVoo is a good option for businesses that need good-quality videoconferencing and have a very fast broadband connection but can't afford a premium dedicated videoconferencing system or a telepresence suite.
Roopam Jain, a principal analyst for conferencing and collaboration at Frost & Sullivan, says desktop videoconferencing tools like ooVoo are a good choice for "meetings focused on content," such as showing a sales brochure to a business partner or demoing a prototype. These lower-end options are suitable for businesses "that lack the network capacity and tools to deploy high-quality videoconferencing on a broad scale inside the firewall," he says.