Startup ViVu has released a software plug-in for Skype that allows the popular Internet calling service to be used for multipoint videoconferencing.
Skype can already be used to make voice calls between more than two parties, but the lack of multipoint video has been seen by some as its biggest shortcoming. The company said recently that one third of all Skype-to-Skype calls now include video.
"The flaw in Skype's video strategy right now is that it's point-to-point only," said Irwin Lazar, an industry analyst with Chicago-based Nemertes Research.
The ViVu plug-in, called VuRoom, lets several people take part in a video call using Skype. The number will depend on the bandwidth available, but ViVu CEO
Sudha Valluru said the service will support up to eight participants for most broadband users before the image quality gets too poor.
The participants are displayed in a browser window that pops up when the call begins. The window can also display a PowerPoint presentation or the host's desktop, and ViVu plans to add an archiving capability in about a month so that conference calls can be viewed over.
The VuRoom plug-in is due to be released for download Wednesday, priced at US$9.95 per month for unlimited calls. Only the person initiating the call has to buy the plug-in; other participants need only Skype, a browser and a webcam.
ViVu developed the plug-in independently of Skype using its publically available interfaces, Valluru said. The service piggy-backs on Skype by using its contact lists and voice service, while ViVu provides the video infrastructure, which it developed for an existing Web conferencing service that it launched in October.
That service, for streaming online conferences, training and seminars to large groups of people, is priced at $49 per month and competes with services like Cisco Systems' WebEx and Citrix Systems' GoToMeeting.
But it requires users to send invitations and agree on a meeting time in advance. The Skype-based service, while limited to fewer participants, let's people see who is online and fire up a video call instantly.
To make a call, the host selects a group of contacts in Skype and chooses Call Group. A box pops up asking "Do you want to start a ViVu Conference" and the host clicks Yes. Recipients are then sent a Web link via Skype chat which they click on to join the call.
Other companies have rolled out Web-based multi-point videoconferencing services, including ooVoo, Nefsis, and SightSpeed, which is owned by Logitech.
But most of the other services require all participants to download a piece of software, and they don't allow users to tap into Skype's vast directory of contacts, said Andrew Davis, senior partner at Wainhouse Research, which specializes in conferencing and collaboration products.
"The service, as far as I can tell, is unique," Davis said.
That doesn't mean it won't face challenges. Most Skype users don't pay for their service, and those people might view even $9.95 a month as too much to pay, Davis said.
There's also a danger that Skype will release its own multipoint video service, something analysts say it is sure to do eventually.
Indeed, Skype has been stepping up its investments in video. It's most recent beta release, Skype 4.2, added support for high-definition video calls, and the
company has announced deals with Panasonic and LG Electronics to get Skype pre-installed on Internet-enabled TVs later this year.
ViVu doesn't support HD video today, though Valluru said the company plans to license the H.264 codec so that it can do so. He also said that VuRoom will be offered soon with another prominent Internet communications tool, but he declined to say from which company.