The other day I was scanning my twitter feed and read this post:
“Skype – why do you suck? I’m happy to pay real $ for a premium service that doesn’t drop/freeze/pissmeoff… (sorry, had to vent)”
A brief background on the company this person works for/with – they are a premier investment firm in the US. I do not know them intimately and they are not an existing customer but from what I know they are capitalized better than most companies, have a robust travel budget, and work with tech companies all over the globe. So on the periphery, not your typical Skype business user.
My first reaction was to respond with something a bit flippant like “no kidding?” or “Shocker!”. But this wouldn’t be productive nor is it fair. Skype does have a place in our communication tool box. Matter of fact, I use Skype quite a bit myself when I’m overseas or out of the country. In those places cellular service is quite expensive and I always seem to find great WiFi. With my iPhone and a inexpensive Skype Out package I’m able to call home for almost nothing. So I get it.
I also get when companies that are in start-up mode or watching every penny use Skype. It just makes sense. It’s cheap and sometimes free. But implicit with the agreement to use very inexpensive technology over the free internet is the expectation that service delivery may not be perfect. Skype was initially developed as a consumer to consumer tool. It was for chatting and videoing with friends and family. Sure, they’re out there trying to sell a business version but it is what it is – One of my favorite CEO’s at one of my previous companies used to say, when our services were being a bit glitchy, “hey, it’s conferencing over the internet” and shrug. It wasn’t that he didn’t care or was happy with the service issues but when you’re running communication traffic over the public internet, you are always at risk of continuity and packet loss.
Audio – 99% of our voice traffic is still delivered via the traditional phone network, often times referred to as PSTN. We do have VoIP or Voice over IP as well, and I’ll touch on that in a second. There are many reason for this but first and foremost our global phone network delivered by providers like AT&T, Level3, Verizon, Orange, etc. is tried and true. It works and delivers crystal clear audio. We can forgive a lot in our visual experience if the audio is clear. It’s the fiber or backbone of our communications. Many of your calls today are run on VoIP by phone companies. They have very sophisticated network systems and can switch your call from PSTN to VoIP to PSTN and VoIP again all in a single phone call without you having any idea. And that’s the way it should be. Many enterprise companies are also moving to VoIP networks – but the thing to note here is that they have dedicated bandwidth and network and switch that traffic directly with the network provider – they are not sending their very important voice traffic to the open internet. The dynamic networks actually have custom rules that give preferential treatment to voice traffic to ensure it’s always clear and if there’s too much traffic on the network it’s the data that gets delayed or rerouted.
Much of the VoIP referred to today, including that of Skype simply runs your voice traffic from your phone or sound card right out onto the public internet. This is where people get confused, thinking they have an enterprise VoIP solution when in reality it is not even close to the same thing. Now think about your typical web browsing experience on the public internet. How many times do you get a “Page Cannot Be Displayed” notification only to refresh and hop right where you were trying to go? Or how many times have you had You Tube buffer and get stuck, only to refresh and immediately fix the hang up? Now imagine this is voice traffic – it becomes garbled, drops, freezes, and does all sorts of weird things then returns to normal. Of course, it feels much more catastrophic and frustrating than a quick “Page Cannot Be Displayed” splash since we’re less tolerant of it because it’s voice. And that’s the way it should be.
Web, video, or visual data – Video on the desktop crunches a ton of bandwidth. It’s one reason to run the audio over a separate line, it frees up this bandwidth. There’s been a long standing compromise associated with desktop video and you have to pick your poison. You can either have a super sharp image and a bit of a delay on the voice sync or very fluid image with less sharpness in image. The exception here are tools like Vidyo that use the SVC codec and focus on video as their primary communications driver – but you’re going to have to pay for that as well. On the webconferencing side, most services are relaying the host’s information up to a central server and then “streaming” (for lack of a better word) the content back to the participants taking into account each participant’s bandwidth. This is also taking quite a bit of responsibility off of the host’s machine resulting in the best experience possible and also delivering the experience that each participant deserves according to their machine and bandwidth capabilities. This way if someone in a meeting has low bandwidth or an ancient PC the entire meeting isn’t penalized, just that particular participant.
Lastly, most enterprise audio and web communications/collaboration solutions provide real time technical support. That way if there is an issue you have someone accessible, on our system it’s either via the web interface or by hitting *0 on your phone, to triage your issue and get you back to what’s most important, the immediacy of your meeting.
So Skype can be great – as long as your expectations for a free or budget service are in line with their capabilities. If not, perhaps it’s time to graduate to something a bit more enterprise with SLA’s (ours is 99.99% uptime) and service. Yes, it’s going to cost more but in the end you’re going to have a better meeting experience. You’re going to pay now (by purchasing services) or pay later (with frustration and lost productivity in your meetings), pick one!
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