Monday, November 29, 2010

Talking to each other...

Like everyone else I know I have already been using Skype for ages. Why not? You can VC with each other in splendid quality of both sound and image. All free if it's computer talking to computer, going over IP without any landline or cellphone operators in the chain. In earlier years, when compression algorithms and data transmission speeds were both constrained, Skype and similar tools in instant messengers (Yahoo, Microsoft, Google) were doing the job but you just couldn't claim these were the best user experience on the planet. Apple came later with iChat claiming better quality, but even that wasn't all that beautiful. In the meantime, things improved, especially data compression and streaming data speeds, and with that video and audio improved to the point of "very acceptable" by most real people. Youtube started large scale offering of (what they call) HD in different progressive rates, like 360p, 480p and (HD ready) 720p, and viewing clips in these higher resolutions improved user experience on flat screen HDTV monitors quite a bit. In the meantime, iPhones and iPads hit the market, followed by the sophisticated iPod Touch's (recently), offering similar functionality to the latest iPhones. In parallel, Skype produced a number of paid offerings where one could call any possible target line or number from a Skype enabled station, that being, a computer (desktop or portable), a dedicated Skype phone (I had that too, once upon a time, no video though possible), and the latest goodies from Apple, that is iPhones, iPod Touch (latest gen) and the iPad. Skype for iPad isn't yet out, I think, only the iPhone/iPod Touch app version that also runs on iPad. In other words, the exact same app runs on three Apple mobile devices, the iPad, the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

If you own any one of those three devices, the best you can do is buy a set of earphones with an integrated mic and you are good to go. Skype offers quite a few commercial programs and I find them one of the cheapest solutions on the market. Also fee settlement is pretty straight forward and easy to do by casual users. You can even decide to allow them to add more credit automatically and avoid dropping the call during the most interesting part of the conversation, when you're about to confess to her "Honey, I love you so much, more than anything...", as it usually happens when calls drop... Also with the current iOs 4.2 multitasking available, I leave my Skype app open at all times on any of these devices, and when someone calls me, all active devices ring together in choir like regular phones do. Only problem, the calling party has got no idea that I am responding on an iPhone, iPod Touch or an iPad and before I can blink I can hear them moaning: "Turn on your camera, dude... I can't see yeah... " and more of that. ("Why do you wanna see me anyways, I look like shit and I'm in my pajamas"). You eventually tell them that you're using your phone to talk to them and they're like hit by lightening. "Gee, I didn't know you could do that?!" I just called the spouse from my loft, her being in the dining room on the ground floor on our normal landline, and me on my iPad running Skype. Connectivity was perfect and sound quality even better. I asked her,  "do you know that I'm calling you with Skype from my iPad?" She's like, "No way! You must be kidding me! Cool. Continue playin' baby", she said and she hung up... The good news is that it all works smoothly like a charm.

I'm using the free for all of Europe landline program at about ten bucks a month, where I can call landlines in Europe 24x7 for the fix monthly fee I mentioned. Fair use expects subscribers to do no more than 10000 hrs a month, which is pretty descent unless you are a regular business or insanely in love with someone. I'm also sending SMSs with Skype, but the cheapest SMSs I'm doing on an iPad app called GlobalAQ. That app created a phone nr for me on the telephone zone in the country of pinguins at the South pole, and the problem is, if I send an SMS from this number, most operators won't deliver 'reply' messages... For the rest, the cost for international SMS is ridiculously low. Chickenshit really.

It goes without saying that if both parties are on Apple material and linked to internet on either side, FaceTime is your app. My best experience was recently when I was in my room with a veranda by the beach in the Grand Egnatia Hotel in Alex/Polis, Greece and my spouse was at my elder son's studio in Amsterdam. She called me on a Mac with Facetime and the call came in on my iPhone already connected to the hotel's free wifi. We talked for more than an hour, whereby I did to her a sightseeing tour of my room, the veranda and the blue Aegean breaking waves right in front of me, say 30 yards  away from my room. All she said was, "why don't you stare into the camera, honey? Don't you like me anymore?". That's how women are spoilin' our gadget fun all the time, especially the married ones.

In conclusion, Facetime is better that Skype in a end-to-end IP exchange for two reasons. The app doesn't have to be activated for Facetime to work (whereas in Skype you need to be first online and then they call you). Second, Facetime offers video conferencing on Apple's iPhones and iPod Touch. Not on iPad yet though. Maybe next year when 2nd gen iPads come out with two cameras. What I'd also expect is that sooner or later Skype for iOs 4 will support video as well. I don't see why not...

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