The recent news that Skype has started charging a fee for group videoconferencing may not have come as a surprise to anyone—after all, the company had clearly stated that it was planning to make the feature a pay service once Skype 5.0 exited beta. However, that doesn’t change the fact that one of the best multi-party videoconferencing options for OS X has suddenly disappeared behind a paywall.
Fear not, though. The intrepid Macworld staff has scoured the Internets to bring you five alternatives to Skype that will let you create a videoconference with your friends while still preserving the sanctity of your wallet. Some of the options are obvious ones, while others are a bit off the beaten path. In all cases, this article only focuses on applications and services that allow multiple users to be connected together in a videoconference, rather than just simple one-to-one conversations.
Let’s start with the choice that requires the least effort: iChat. Available on every Mac as part of the default OS X installation, iChat is not only great for one-on-one conversations using chat, audio, and video, but can also connect you and three others via video. If you own a copy of iLife, you can even use GarageBand to record your conferences and turn them into podcasts.
iChat’s only real downside is that it’s an OS X-only application, which means that you won’t be able to share the joy with your friends and colleagues running Windows and Linux.
QNext is a multi-platform chat and conferencing application that allows users to interact in a number of ways: instant messaging, media sharing, and audio and video chat. It runs on OS X, Windows, Linux, and a variety of mobile devices, and supports videoconferencing between up to four computers.
While QNext is entirely free and supports text chatting with users of multiple networks like AIM and GTalk, it does have to be installed on the computer of each participant in order for a videoconference to take place.
Unlike the other two solutions that we have examined so far, Tokbox’s video chat solution is not a client application that needs to be installed on your computer, but, rather a service that runs directly in your browser, via Adobe’s Flash platform. It is also a specialized system that was designed primarily for videoconferencing, which means that it is unlikely to replace your current instant messaging client for day-to-day chatting.
However, Tokbox’s ephemeral nature also means that you don’t have to spend the first ten minutes of every conference call waiting for the other participants to install software on their computers; you can simply invite them to join your conference directly from a Web browser and, as long as they have a recent version of Flash installed, you’ll be able to see their smiling faces in a matter of seconds, regardless of what operating system they run.
In the company’s own words, Tinychat “provides dead simple, free to use, video chat rooms that just work.” Much like Tokbox, Tinychat is a Web-based service that uses Flash to allow multiple users to chat via audio, video, and text. Its greatest strength is its simplicity: you visit the Website, choose a name for your own chatroom, and end up with a URL to share with your friends. There is no need to sign up for service, give out any personal information, or install any software.
Given how easy it is to use, Tinychat could be the best solution for chatting with family members who like things to “just work” and are not comfortable with custom software. On the downside, the service offers little flexibility in the way your videoconference is run—for example, you cannot limit access to it by setting a password, and the moderation tools it provides are very limited. The combination of free service and ease of use also tends to attract a number of… colorful users, which means that browsing the service’s existing chat rooms is not for the faint of heart.
Our final stop on the road to videoconferencing independence is a system called Sifonr. Much like Tinychat, this Web-based application uses Flash to create video chat rooms with an unlimited number of participants. Most interestingly, it takes advantage of a feature called peer-assisted networking to allow the participants to share their bandwidth in order to improve the overall quality and efficiency of the service—obviously a plus for users with limited Internet connectivity. And the service throws in peer-to-peer file sharing for good measure.
Sifonr does not require its users to sign up for service; like Tinychat, it allows you to create a chatroom in a matter of seconds just by picking an arbitrary name. You can then share the room’s unique URL with your friends and get your conference started without too much hassle. Once again, the controls are minimal and moderation tools are very basic, which means that just about anybody can join your videoconference with little or no warning. One nice feature, however, is the ability to run the videoconference in full-screen mode.
The adventure continues
Our short list of five alternatives to Skype has only begun to scratch the surface of the many different options available to Mac users. A few minutes’ worth of Google time will lead you to a veritable treasure trove of options, from complex business-grade solutions to simple consumer-oriented tools.
At the end of the day, you may still decide that the fee Skype charges for its service is low enough to outweigh the hassle of using a different provider, but, if you want choice, there is plenty to be had.
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Marco Tabini is based in Toronto, Canada, where he focuses on software development for mobile devices and for the Web.