Standard seminars may have gone the way of typewriters and transparencies in the office and boardroom. Why travel long-distance to meet with clients when you can save money and the environment communicating through a computer or mobile phone? Small businesses and consumers have a variety of options for online video conferencing for free.
It’s as simple as having the right hardware – a webcam and a compatible computer with broadband -- and downloading the video conferencing freeware. Some services are browser based, requiring you to visit their site and invite others to your designated “meeting room.”
Skype remains the most popular global leader for free international video communication, but the field of competitors has continued to evolve over the past 10 years.
When shopping for a conferencing provider, technology experts advise reading the fine print. Be wary of free trial periods, merely gateways to paid service subscriptions, and understand that free often means fewer features and less support.
Free services differentiate themselves by their offerings, generally restricted to a small number of participants and specific applications. Also, some may only offer person-to-person communication, considered video chat, not conferencing, which typically connects three or more participants.
“They get you in the front door, offering you something for free. They make money selling you up on higher-cost features,” said Stu Lipoff, a telecommunications consultant and a consumer electronics leader within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Here are some of the top free choices for online video conferencing:
Skype: A pioneer in the industry, Skype began in 2003 in Luxembourg and originally only offered audio capabilities, Lipoff said. When it expanded to video, its customers were already in place to sign onto the new service. The business took off from there, he said.
Skype also stood out from the other first generation services because it worked well behind firewalls, he said.
Today you can use Skype on your phone, computer or Skype-equipped TV. You receive free person-to-person video conferencing, but you have to pay more for group video calling, domestic calling, access to Wi-Fi and texting capabilities.
Skype’s premium plan, $9 a month, allows for video calling with three or more people up to a maximum of 10. But for best quality, Skype recommends no more than five participants.
A search of online blogs and market reports indicate some Skype users may find its audio and video lacking. In December, a Skype software glitch caused a system-wide crash of the service with competitors capitalizing on the incident to edge into the market.
It also forced many users to consider communication alternatives to depending entirely on Internet-based voice over technology.
For international calling capability, Skype retains the lead among free online video conferencing suppliers.
Like its competitors, Skype continues to enhance its services. For instance, in January, Skype began offering video calling over wireless, mobile networks.
Oovoo: Billing an advantage over Skype, Oovoo cites third-party research on its website and Facebook page stating that it offers better video, audio and conversational quality.
Oovoo provides free three-way video and audio calling, even to those without the service, along with support and texting ability.
It costs 10 cents a minute for higher resolution video and up to 6 participants and 33 cents a minute for desktop sharing.
Google Voice: Last year Google began offering a voice option on its Gmail that compared to Skype’s interface, allowing users to make and receive audio and video calls.
Users complained online about Google’s call quality, but raved about its free domestic calling service.
Yahoo! Messenger, an instant messaging program, also offers video communication, but only through Windows or Mac. According to the company’s website, features include the ability to swap video windows, position the video windows side-by-side, mute the call or place it on hold. You can even go full-screen. Video calling is only available on Yahoo! Messenger version 10 or later.
SightSpeed: Person-to-person video chatting is free or you can pay for up to four people. It works on PCs and Macs. SightSpeed, a service of Logitech Inc., claims on its website: “Unlike other online video services, SightSpeed offers the highest-quality, full motion 30 frames per second video with clear audio and no annoying delay.”
Last year, Logitech expanded its video calling services to Google TV. While sales didn’t exactly pan out, the concept is an example of how the industry has changed since the early 1990s. At that time, video communication was expensive, low-quality, complex, cumbersome and mainly used by big corporations.
In some countries, it’s still expensive to receive fast, high-quality connections. But the technological breakthroughs are emerging as quickly as the list of Skype competitors.