Instant Messaging Gets the Picture

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SAN JOSE -- Video instant messaging and videoconferencing are becoming harder to tell apart, both in quality and in price. A handful of new products shown at the recent Instant Messaging Planet Conference and Expo here cover the spectrum from $25 monthly for video IM to thousands of dollars a year for full-fledged groupware.

New video messaging products include SightSpeed Visual Messenger, Userplane's A/V Instant Communicator, Viack's VIA3 e-meeting service, the e/pop Web Conferencing Server from WiredRed, and IMConferencing from LiveOffice.

The video services follow the model of other instant messaging add-ons, such as Vibe Phone, a telephony utility. All of these vendors either let users access the service through a Web browser or offer a free software client for download, and price the service on a monthly basis, with varying factors and features. Most require that only the meeting or IM host actually subscribe to the service, so it's possible to have a video chat with a rarely-seen friend or a potential customer without them having to pay.

Video functions require at least the host to have a Web cam, as well as anyone responding (not just watching) the presentation. Most also require a broadband connection.

Real Time--For Real

The herky-jerky lag time problems of early videoconferencing programs have discouraged users, and the standalone video messaging program SightSpeed tackles this technology issue by looking at it literally the way the human eye would.

Humans can perceive latency at a rate as low as 100 milliseconds, says Brad Treat, SightSpeed chief executive officer. Cell phones, with their 120-ms latency rate, pose perceptible lag time problems. The 70-ms latency rate of landline phones feels like real-time communication, because humans can't perceive the latency, he says.

"SightSpeed's goal is to keep latency as low as possible," Treat says. Sightspeed operates at 50 to 90 ms on most broadband connections, still well below a latency humans can perceive. He demonstrated this on the show floor by phoning an employee who was also logged in through SightSpeed. The video quality looked smooth and crisp, and the employee's lips moved at the same rate as the telephone conversation.

SightSpeed Visual Messenger is available for as little as $9.95 monthly (or $99.95 yearly) for 200 minutes each month, and costs $29.95 monthly ($299.95 per year) for unlimited use. A user must have the software client installed and the service working to send video, but anyone can install the client and watch video without subscribing to the service. For both parties to send video, both must subscribe to the service.

The free, downloadable software comes with a seven-day unlimited trial for the service and ten minutes of daily free use after the trial expires.

No Software Required

Userplane's A/V Instant Communicator may look familiar to intranet users and Internet dating habitues. This Flash-based video/audio/text instant messaging program has been licensed to a number of companies and communities, but it's also available to anyone who wants to create their own video IM community.

Userplane bills by the number of concurrent connections, allowing a customer to accommodate a small family with a $25 unlimited-hours package as well as a large company that needs thousands of connections. Only one service subscriber is required per conversation, although both parties need to use a Web browser with Flash 6.0. No additional software is required. New users get a 60-day free trial for the service.

This week, Sightspeed introduced SightSpeedWeb, which works through Internet Explorer. It's priced at $99.95 per user per month or $999.95 per user per year.

Don't Just Talk

If secure Web conferencing is a priority, Viack's VIA3 e-meeting service may answer those concerns. The program supports both Secure Socket Layer and Advanced Encryption Standard encryption.

No other Web conferencing product offers SSL encryption as a standard feature, and no similar products offer AES at all, according to David Duignan, Viack strategic director.

A VIA3 meeting can accommodate up to 25 people, with each of them shown in a resizable image window that can be set to show live video or a still picture. VIA3's user interface lets e-meeting attendees store project documents in File Cabinets and collaborate on Word documents, PowerPoint, and other common business applications.

A VIA3 host pays $200 per month for unlimited access to the e-meeting service and 16 hours a day of live telephone tech support. The free, downloadable software comes with a 30-day trial for the service.

Collaboration Tools

Like VIA3, the e/pop Web Conferencing Server from WiredRed supports desktop-sharing, video conferencing, and collaboration for all Windows applications.

It uses the dockable tab interface familiar in Microsoft Office 11. One handy feature for presentations: It lets users show PowerPoint without preloading the slides. It supports SSL, SSL3 and Transport Layer Security encryption; the selection is up to the customer's IT administrator.

The fixed-service software solution is priced at a $2000 fixed annual fee for up to five concurrent users. Since this is a software solution, WiredRed does not limit the number of hours of use. It comes with eight hours live phone support per day.

Also in the works is IMConferencing, a Web conferencing and collaboration product from LiveOffice. The company has no relation to the Microsoft server product of the same name.

LiveOffice has begun beta testing of IMConferencing, which is slated for release early next year.

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