Videoconferencing: A call for action

One New Year's resolution that's past due: Focus on tackling videoconferencing interoperability

When my oldest niece was 2 years old, she had — as all kids do — a favorite expression: “see ‘em.” If there were chicks incubating in a box at the farm, she wanted to “see ‘em.” If there were treats in the cupboard, she wanted to “see ‘em.”

Well, now my two nieces and nephew have moved far away, and I want to “see ‘em.” This is where I get cantankerous. I can only fly so much. I’ve got a smokin’ 2GHz Windows box I pretty much just use for page up and page down. And a fat broadband pipe I pay an arm and a leg for. My brother’s family has the same. It’s the eve of 2007. Why can’t we have high-quality desktop videoconferencing without making it a federal project?

Here’s who I’m annoyed with: Apple, AT&T, Microsoft, and Skype. Apple, you’ve got the best codec and webcam. Why can’t you offer your service cross-platform? There’s no way my whole family’s gonna switch to Macs; we’re almost all on Windows. AT&T, your proprietary DSL modem conflicts with my Netgear router, and between the two of them they won’t let the video signal through — shame on you.

Microsoft … don’t even get me started. And Skype, if you’re going to offer cross-platform videoconferencing, why use an inferior codec to Apple’s H.264? Why only 15 frames per second rather than 30? Once I’ve seen state of the art, there’s no way I’m going to go through all the effort with my family for inferior quality.

Who’s the real culprit here? For starters, lack of imagination. The greatest minds of our generation are working on how to make violent video game graphics grislier instead of meeting this obvious, universal human need. Maybe it’s a money thing, too. We expect communication to be free these days, so maybe these companies don’t see any payback. Well, here I am. I’ll pay! Maybe it’s a network issue? Too many links in the chain to coordinate? Last-mile problem? Lack of standardization? The perils of the free market?

Look, Steve Jobs figured out the music thing. Mark Andreesen figured out the browser. Sergey and Larry figured out search. How about it guys … let’s figure out desktop videoconferencing and make it great — maybe that could be your New Years’ resolution (and I mean HIGH resolution), because my nieces live far away, and I want to “see ‘em.”

When geeky worlds collide: I went to my first IT “meet-up” the other day — you know, those small gatherings of like-minded people that started with political groups during the 2000 election. This was officially a “PHP/MySQL” meet-up, to talk about those technologies.

It was a small, 30- and 40ish group: myself, a guy from the University of California, two guys from MySQL, two guys from Wordpress (a blogging software company), and two guys from JasperSoft (and open source reporting tools company). The conversation ranged from a deep dive into MySQL’s road map, to how to handle ultralarge data sets, to the pros and cons of PHP vs. Ruby on Rails.

I learned a lot. Ruby is growing fast. Open source companies are taking money from VCs and becoming confused about who they are and what kind of culture they want. Even the people who are most in the know seem to have a ton of questions. But it was great to talk to experts in person — they’re friendly!