You expect crystal clear audio conferencing over the phone? Get real – and get a USB headset.

Audio is an integral part of web conferencing. There are two ways of providing audio service: either a vendor offers an integrated VoIP solution or they offer POTS (plain old telephone service) aka. landlines.

The quality of VoIP is generally very good and exceeds that of a standard phone conference by far. And integration of VoIP should actually be no biggie for the vendors since they simply need to add the audio to the web conferencing functionality already in place. Yet, mostly phone conferences are used for web conferencing. How is that?

Well, even though with broadband easily accessible to deliver the VoIP, many users of online collaboration tools are missing one integral part of the solution: A decent USB headset or computer mike. And many users also feel it is easier to pick up the phone and dial into a phone conference in parallel to the online meeting. Big vendors clearly have an advantage here since they have the resources to provide an infrastructure of geographically dispersed audio bridges to even enable this functionality.

There is a trend in web conferencing, however, that shows an increase of VoIP usage. The increase is slow, but it is noticeable. Mobile devices play a role here because e.g. on an iPad you need VoIP since users will hardly be sitting next to their office phone when participating with an iPad or smart phone.

What will happen in the near future is the following: while VoIP clearly is the future, vendors will provide both POTS audio service and VoIP. And they will have to, because offering only one will equal a huge loss in revenue simply because too many users will be shut out. To get users to adapt to VoIP quicker, vendors should maybe consider bundled offers of web conferencing services plus the necessary peripherals such as USB headset and webcam.

And yes, if you have a fairly new computer it is likely to have an included mike that delivers a decent sound quality as well as a webcam. But this is not the case for a vast majority of office computers. And until that changes, adaptation to VoIP will remain a slow process.

Skype: Great for private chats and calls, not so great for web conferencing

Why did we include Skype in our ranking today? Or better: Why have we waited until today to do so?

Millions of users have been calling each other via Skype for years. If more than two users are in the call – Skype has been offering this functionality for quite some time now – you could say that they are in an „audio conference“. With version 4.1 for Windows and 2.8 for Mac, Skype introduced desktop sharing, which we like to refer to as screen sharing – for two and only two users. With version 5, Skype has enhanced its video functionality: now, for the first time ever, more than two Skype users can wave at each other without being in the same room.

This step-by-step inclusion of features that are important for web conferencing, and the popularity of Skype induced us to test the tool and compare it with the other online collaboration solutions in our ranking. Of course, Skype is chiefly in use for private „meetings“, which is why the focus of the developers understandably rests on the functionalities most relevant to the consumer, as e.g. video calls. With the introduction of desktop sharing, however, Skype has provided business users with an essential functionality for web conferencing, next to VoIP and chat.

The major reason why we haven’t considered Skype so far is just as mundane as it is essential: If you want to use Skype you need an account! And since the world is not quite as black and white and doesn’t change with such breath-taking speed as Michael Arlington likes to suggest in his little „TechCrunch Hightech-Startup-Corner“ the overwhelming majority of business users worldwide simply does not comply with this crucial prerequisite. And if we want to remain realistic for just a second: This will not change all to soon. A lot of potential business users have a big enough workload as is without trying to find the right balance between VoIP and POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) at the workplace. And, not to forget, many companies deny their workers usage of Skype straight out.

Nevertheless, Skype is already being used as a web conferencing solution in some online collaboration scenarios. Especially teams that are spread out across the globe need to make sure to coordinate their efforts and often resort to Skype as a solution. By introducing Skype into our ranking we want to demonstrate what you can do with the tool in regards to online collaboration, and what it leaves to be desired in comparison with established web conferencing tools.

In our test we did not give demerits for the fact that only registered users with an account can share their screens. But we did downgrade the ranking for the biggest – and most painful – gap: Screen Sharing, unlike video conferencing, is only possible between two users! Other turn-offs are:
- Switching mouse and keyboard control is not possible in screen sharing mode;
- Skype offers no marking tools;
- A meeting cannot be scheduled in advance and invitations cannot be announced via mail or Outlook-calendar.

Michael Arrington from Techcrunch posted a blog-post called „Skype Screen Sharing Is A Huge (And Free) Productivity Tool“ in which he lists the major advantages of Skype, i.e. that usage is free of cost and very intuitive. This argument is not really valid. There are well-established, free-of-cost web conferencing tools such as Mikogo and DimDim that offer much more and allow meetings between anybody – not just registered users. Ok, true: with Skype’s “always-on” mode users can start a screen sharing session in five seconds. Most of the webconferencing solutions we tested need between fifteen seconds for scheduled meetings and 60 seconds for ad-hoc meetings. But come on! That cannot seriously be considered a great advantage of Skype. So this is not a relevant criterion either.

Third-party vendors of web conferencing solutions are of no real help when it comes to closing the gap of missing functionalities in their integrated Skype versions. Providers such as Innerpass, Oneeko, Yugma, VuRoom, and Yuuguu basically only offer meeting hosts to include Skype users in their invitations and use Skype’s VoIP functionality. The actual conference is then held with the providers’ own platform, not Skype.