The Mac office: Picturing a better way to communicate

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An AT&T commercial from 1993 asked, among other things, “Have you ever tucked your baby in from a phone booth?” We see a mother making a video call to her child in a public phone booth, and the voice-over assures us, “You will.”

Twenty years ago, the vision for video calling in the future was that it would be universal—and as simple and interoperable as telephones. Now we all have cameras built into our Macs, iPhones, and iPads, and maybe even our TVs. And it is indeed possible to buy a device called a videophone. Video communication is commonplace, but the problem is that there are dozens of competing systems, services, and protocols. Whichever one of these you choose on a given occasion may or may not work for the party on the other end. And if two people have several options to choose from, figuring out which works best can be an exercise in frustration.

Because I work at home and my colleagues and clients are scattered around the world, I regularly rely on video for meetings, presentations, demos, and other business get-togethers. So I have software installed, and accounts set up, for Facebook Video Calling, FaceTime, Google+ Hangouts, Messages, Skype, and a few other services—each on several different devices. And yet, I rarely have a truly satisfactory voice- or video-chat experience. Nearly every time someone wants to conduct a video call with me, we have to go through multiple rounds of negotiation and fiddling, and even then something often goes wrong.

Hello? Can you hear me?

In Messages, you can use more than one protocol with the same account—for example, you might use a address with both iMessages and AIM. The choice matters because different protocols have different features.

If I want to have a plain, one-on-one video call with someone, nearly any service will work. But, if one party or the other wants to share a computer’s screen, our choices narrow. (FaceTime and Facebook are out, for example.) If I want the other party to see my face and all or part of my screen at the same time—as I do, for example, when delivering a remote video presentation to a user group—I have even fewer options. And if we want more than two parties to be involved in the conversation, yet another set of constraints kicks in.

Then there are technical issues. Although Skype was once my go-to service, almost every Skype call I’ve had in the last two years with more than two participants (whether audio-only or video) has degraded to the point of uselessness within a half hour or so, forcing us to stop the call and reconnect—even though all parties have great bandwidth, fast computers, and up-to-date software.

Time and again, I’ve had problems with people using Messages because they had it configured to use the right account but with the wrong protocol. And even when the account is set up correctly, I frequently find that Messages users on public Wi-Fi networks can’t connect, because some of the ports Messages needs are commonly blocked. My Macworld editors can attest to the problem of horrible echoing in Google+ Hangouts if microphones are placed incorrectly in a meeting room.

Fees, plug-ins and other hassles

Now, I can guess what you’re thinking, even before you write it in the comments, which I know you will: “Your whole problem is that you haven’t mentioned my favorite video service, X, which is brilliant and perfect and the best thing ever! How could you have omitted the obvious solution?”

Well, I’ll tell you.

The reason I mentioned the services I did is that any Mac or iOS user can access them for free, and most of us already have the software and accounts we need. Anything else requires something extra—usually downloading an app or plug-in, struggling with a Flash-based interface, setting up an account, paying a monthly fee, or some combination of the above. All those things are barriers for every other participant.

True story: A developer wanted to demo some new software for me, so we set up an online meeting. I thought we were going to use Skype or Google+ Hangouts, but at the last minute, I received a message saying we’d be using GoToMeeting, a commercial videoconferencing service. To participate in the call, I had to download, install, and configure GoToMeeting’s software on my Mac, an annoying extra step. A few days later, the same developer wanted to follow up on some additional features, and I assumed we’d use GoToMeeting again. But this time they wanted to use, which would have forced me to download and install yet another plug-in. I said no: Life is too short, and I don’t need to junk up my Mac with a bunch of software I’ll use only once and forget about.

Yes, I’m familiar with other consumer services such as ooVoo and other business-oriented services such as and WebEx Meetings. There are tons of ways to have a video conversation online, but that’s the problem. They’re all proprietary, and they all require extra effort or expense from at least one of the participants. I can never just say, “I’ll call you,” as I can with telephone calls.

A Google+ Hangout can include up to ten participants, and if you choose to make it public, you can also have it automatically recorded and posted on YouTube.

What I’m using until the future arrives

I still want the future that AT&T promised in 1993. I want to be able to give someone my video ID and know for certain that we’ll be able to see and hear each other regardless of who manufactured our devices or what service we’ve subscribed to. I’d like it even better if I could make the same assumptions about videoconference calls that I can make with audio calls, and if screen sharing were universal.

But it doesn’t look like that future will be coming any time soon. In the meantime, here’s how I choose which service to use:

  • One-on-one video calls: I use FaceTime for family and close friends who I know have iOS devices, and Skype for everyone else (or when screen sharing is necessary).

  • Meetings with three or more participants: Google+ Hangouts is the best option here, because almost everyone already has a Google account, and pretty much everyone I work with already has Google’s voice- and video-chat plug-in installed. (Unlike Messages, Hangouts supports up to ten participants; and unlike Skype, Hangouts lets you conduct a multiperson video chat for free.)

  • For presentations in which I want the other party to see live video of my face alongside a Keynote presentation, I usually use Messages with an AIM account so that I can take advantage of Theater mode. For presentations involving video of two or more people at the same time plus a shared screen, I use Hangouts, logging in from two computers at the same time—one for my face and the other for screen sharing.

If you want the other party to see live video of your face as well as a Keynote presentation, Messages (using the AIM protocol) is an excellent choice.

Before you schedule a video meeting, reflect on two questions. Ask yourself not only whether the service you intend to use has all the features you need, but also how convenient your choice will be for the other party or parties. If you can avoid making someone else jump through extra hoops to accommodate you, you'll get your meeting off to a much better start.

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