When AT&T demonstrated its video telephone at the 1964 World##s Fair, everyone – including AT&T – pretty much figured that it would be the future. People wouldn##t just hear each other over the phone – they##d see each other, too.
What everyone forgot, of course, was a little factor called human nature. People don##t want to be watched on the phone. You don##t want to have to make yourself presentable, to perform or to give up the freedom of multitasking. In the absence of video, you can walk around cleaning, perform small acts of personal grooming, maybe roll your eyes at a stupid comment.
And so here we are, 45 years later, still making audio-only phone calls. Not because of technological limits, but human ones.
So what about Skype?
If you##re under 30 or so, you probably know all about Skype. It##s a free program for Mac, Windows or Linux that connects you to other people who have Skype. You can type instant messages back and forth, make crystal-clear audio calls, and, yes, even make video calls, provided your computers have webcams or built-in cameras – all without paying a penny.
No wonder more than 300 million people have tried Skype. It##s a natural for the college crowd, in particular; free calls are especially attractive when you##re young and broke and far from friends and family. Of course, plenty of other programs do the same things: iChat, Google Talk, MSN Messenger, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, SightSpeed and Oovoo. But because of its simplicity, its quality and its early start, Skype is the one whose name has become a verb.
Last week, after a year of public testing, the Skype team, now owned by eBay, released Skype 4.0 for Windows.
The first change strikes you immediatel: Skype is no longer a flotilla of little windows dancing around your screen. It##s now a single, consolidated window. You can still carry on multiple chats or calls simultaneously, but you switch among them by clicking their names in a list at the left side, rather than juggling multiple windows.
All kinds of useful features are on display. You can drag various sections of the software to resize them; discreet notifications pop up from your system tray when people are trying to reach you; you can import the address book from Hotmail, Yahoo, Outlook or other e-mail services.
The most important changes in Skype 4, though, have to do with video calls. If you##ve ever used video-chat programs before, then you know what an unsatisfying experience it can be. The picture breaks up. Connections get dropped. Quality comes and goes. Worst of all, there##s that annoying delay that makes both you and your conversation partner come across as slightly dim-witted.
The video quality still varies when you use Skype. Fast Internet connections and fast computers still work better than slow ones. But if you do have a good connection, camera, and computer – wow. Skype 4.0 can deliver a picture that##s as big and sharp and smooth as a TV picture, with almost no delay.
In my test calls to friends in California, New York and Virginia, we were amazed at what a difference it makes when the delay goes away.
Just for kicks, we then tested iChat, Oovoo and Sightspeed under the same conditions, on the same computers. None of them matched Skype##s immediacy or video and audio quality.
According to the company, you get the best results if both parties are using Skype 4.0 for Windows, or Skype 2.8 for Mac. But some quality improvement will be apparent even if only one party has the latest.
Skype##s audio quality has always been terrific, more like a CD than a telephone, so if you have decent speakers, audio calls have an eerie, you-are-there presence. But the company says that the new version requires only half as much data to transmit all of that sound and video. In other words, no matter what your Internet connection, you##ll be more likely to get clear sound.
Skype##s video now offers some handy bells and whistles. You no longer have to start a video chat by first starting with an audio call, for example; there##s a dedicated Start Video Chat button. You can also expand the window to full screen, or capture a still image during the call, with one click.
You can also resize both your partner##s video image and your own, smaller, “picture-in-picture” image, or drag them around the screen to suit the situation. And a small utility strip below the picture offers space to type Web addresses or other instant messages to your partner. You can even send a file by dragging its icon off the Windows desktop right into this typing box.
Still, the new Skype is not necessarily the king of video-chat apps. It##s missing some big-ticket items that you can find in its rivals. For example, although Skype can accommodate several participants in a typed chat or an audio call, video calls are strictly one-to-one. In programs like Oovoo, SightSpeed and Apple##s iChat, by contrast, several of you can be on a single video call, creating virtual meetings that bring together participants from far-flung corners of the globe without involving airplanes.
SightSpeed also offers a “video answering machine” – your buddies can leave a video recording for you when you##re not around. The paid versions of SightSpeed##s service also offer one-click recording of your video chats, which can be a useful record indeed, especially in matters of the heart, or business deals.
And while we##re quibbling: it##s great that Skype offers the chance to place calls from your computer to somebody##s actual telephone for a couple of cents a minute – that, after all, is how the company makes money. Rates are, for example, $3 a month for unlimited calling to U.S. and Canadian phones, or $10 a month globally. But Skype really shouldn##t charge you to send text messages this way. Other chat programs let you send text messages straight to people##s cellphones at no charge to you.
Even so, Skype 4.0 is better than before, and it##s free, and that means it##s a no-brainer to upgrade. So if video calling is inching closer to being instantaneous, clear, and satisfying, does that mean that AT&T##s 1964 vision will finally come to pass? Will we one day adjust to the idea of being on camera every time someone calls?
Nah. In the end, video chatting isn##t a replacement for phone calls but a supplement to them, a perfect way to check out someone##s new place, check in with distant family and friends or show off a new talent, or baby. They saw the possibilities back in 1964 – they just didn##t realize that we wouldn##t always want to use them.
The New York Times (abridged)