UPDATE (02/02/09) - A new version of Skype has been released. See it and download it here.
Yes, I do know that Skype has been around for a long time. I've been dorking around with webcams and internet phones for a very long time and have never really found a product or combination of products that delivers on the promise of usable internet audio and video conferencing.
Several years ago, I was very excited to kick Bell South out of my house once I upgraded from DSL to cable internet access. I'd say this is the first time I've put computer controlled bandwidth into play for real telephone uses. (I would not recommend the real-world application of a technology when you have known bandwidth limitations.)
I've been a loyal user of Vonage and have absolutely no complaints about it. I have personally not experienced any of the problems that people say they have. I may have to reboot my router once a quarter and have only had one dropped call in three years, and these are very acceptable to me. While Vonage is still Voice Over IP (VOIP) or an internet based phone, that's a different application of what I think of as an internet phone and it is a paid service. What I am in search of is something that will help me leverage this expansive network of computers for free.
I recently attended a two day class over the internet that required me to dial in to listen to the audio. I just moved and only brought along two cordless phones that I use with my Vonage service. The problem was that even with a carefully orchestrated series of charger swaps and such, I didn't think it would be realistic to call in with these phones. Of course I realized this the morning of the class and had no time to go out and buy a phone that I could leave on all day.
My company had recently sent me a Logitech Quickcam for Notebooks (which I freaking LOVE) so I installed Skype a while ago, created an account, and tested my connection. I have no idea why I opened Skype that morning as a solution; maybe to see what it would cost me or maybe just to kill time before class. Somehow I figured out that Skype recently started allowing you to call toll-free numbers for free. I tested this out by dialing into an early morning conference call I had and it worked like a charm!
Needless to say, I used Skype for two days straight of dialing into my class and participating via my webcam microphone. My call dropped just once each day, which wasn't bad considering I had the connections open for several hours prior to the drop. I was able to immediately dial back in.
Following this successful discovery, I started digging a little deeper. I have a friend who that I've always tested video-conferencing techniques with and he isn't very computer/internet savvy. He's been a perfect candidate to help me with my tests because he represents more users than not and if it is simple for him, then I'm on to something.
He downloaded Skype and created an account for himself and within minutes he called me. I picked up and was happy to hear him loud and clear. I clicked my "Share My Video" button, and instructed him to do the same. Viola, we have video! This is by FAR the simplest and only error free method we have ever tried. There was no need to screw around with camera settings, application settings, or do anything that required a reboot or demanded that we hang up and call each other back. I am certain that our improvement in experience was not related to me having a new webcam. My friend is still using the same webcam that we started testing with years ago. I think it is a long since retired Labtec or something.
I am VERY impressed with Skype's audio calling quality and ease and equally as impressed with the ease and convenience of the video features. They have some advanced tuning you can do for high quality video but "out of the box" calls were acceptable in my book. So now that I have identified something that finally delivers on the Jetson's video phone promise, there is only one problem - everyone you want to talk to has to install Skype and be logged in. If they are logged in, you click to call them and if they answer, you're ready to rock. Skype to Skype calls are free no matter where you are which is cool. The video feature is great, and there are even conferencing features that I have yet to dive into and use.
I've been dialing into all of my work conference calls from my laptop for about the past month now and nobody has complained about my quality. In fact, people noticed that I wasn't as choppy as some past calls I've made via my Vonage phone (Vonage does suffer when you are downloading a bunch of data, which I do routinely). I recently learned that Skype offers unlimited calls to the US and Canada landlines and cellphones for as little as $2.95/month! You can even purchase a "real" handheld cordless phone to make the experience as traditional as you need. I think I am going to ditch my $30 month Vonage phone in favor of Skype's deal. If nothing else, it looks like a very cool and very cheap way to deal with a home telephone. As little as I use a home telephone, $2.95/month doesn't really seem unreasonable, especially since I can use the service from any PC where I am located in the world! They do offer other plans - $5.95 gets you and unlimited plan to phones in Mexico, and for $9.95/month, you may call any landline in the world.
Stay tuned for my Vonage to Skype switchover project notes!