Microsoft has agreed to acquire Skype for $8.5 billion in cash. As a long term Skype user I've had Skype loaded on my Macs for years now. It serves for video chats with my family and business associates and also as my desk-bound IP telephony device. This model has worked well for me. By combing a couple of cool AppleScripts with Launchbar I can call people without my fingers leaving the keyboard. So if everything works so well, why would I need an alternative?
Skype's Mac Client
I was more than a little concerned when Skype released their last Mac client and it was, well, not very good. Skype's never really been a company that embraces the Mac user interface well, though version 2.8 is serviceable from a user experience standpoint. With the announced acquisition my confidence in Skype putting any money into "embracing and extending" the Mac client in a way that makes dedicated Mac users happy is... well... compromised.
My confidence in Microsoft's ability to service the needs of Mac users is not very high. Though Steve Balmer has stated that Microsoft will continue to "invest in Skype on non-Microsoft client platforms", that could simply mean they will patch bugs and maybe ensure that some new features added to Skype will also be slapped into the Mac user interface. This hardly makes me confident that they will do anything innovative on Mac. It's far more likely they will simply leave the Skype for Mac client wallowing in freakish misery forever.
Given these and other issues, what are the options for people that want to move away from Skype on Mac? I'll take a look at some of the more popular alternatives here.
As a comprehensive communications solution Skype is pretty robust and not easy to replace with a single solution. It supports both Mac and Windows (there is even an open source Linux client), and offers mobile video support as well. You can use Skype to make free calls to other Skype users for video and/or voice as well as fire chat messages back and forth. Skype on the iPhone also supports video calls over 3G. Video chats are very reliable and other than some basic configuration settings (like which mic to use), they generally work very well.
For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to focus on the Video Chat portion of Skype. I will compare the three main options for Mac users: FaceTime, Google GTalk and iChat.
FaceTime is the new kid on the block, it's become very popular among Apple aficionados because it's integrated into iPhone 4s, iPod Touches and iPad 2s, as well as any Snow Leopard based Mac. Apple has also released the specification for FaceTime as an open standard, encouraging other platforms to use this. Apple made FaceTime a significant part of their marketing strategy, devoting full national commercials to it.
Advantages: Very high video quality, even over connections that would cause other video chats (including Skype) to degrade and produce artifacts. Integrated directly with the calling feature on iPhones so you can switch to a video chat on demand. No large client loaded on Mac while waiting for calls - incoming calls are handled directly by OS X.
Disadvantages: Requires the latest and greatest Mac OS (currently Snow Leopard). Older Macs not upgraded to Snow Leopard are out of luck. An iPhone 4, 4th generation iPod Touch or iPad 2 is required on the iOS side, though that's mainly because they are the first devices to have a front and rear facing camera. As of today, you cannot run a FaceTime call over 3G; it requires WiFi unless you jailbreak your iPhone or trick it into thinking it’s connected to WiFi. There are no clients currently available for Windows or Linux. No screen sharing.
Summary: While I love using FaceTime, today it's far too limited. 3G support will help tremendously. Apple should invest the time in building a Windows FaceTime client because it's highly unlikely anyone else will. Those two factors are critical to widespread adoption of FaceTime. This is a great consumer point to point solution for personal use assuming the people you want to chat with are sporting the latest and greatest Apple equipment.
Gmail or iGoogle account you also have a Google Chat account. Add in the GTalk plug-in and you can have a video chat with another Gmail account user directly from your browser. The video quality is great and connecting up is very simple. The price can't be beat because this is another one of Google's many free offerings.
Though Google doesn't directly support video chats on iOS there is a free application called Vtok that does support video chats from an iPhone/iPod/iPad.
Advantages: Excellent video quality on the desktop. Works on Mac OS X (10.4 +), Windows (XP +) and Linux. Client plugin is very lightweight. Can run Vtok over 3G on the iPhone.
Disadvantages: Video quality when running on iPhone (using Vtok) is poor, even over WiFi. Cannot perform screen sharing.
Summary: If you want ubiquitous access much like Skype, Google Gtalk is probably your closest bet, though it's really not for mobile devices right now. Sure, Vtok works but the quality is very poor on iOS devices, at least when compared to the Skype or FaceTime options. Google needs to develop a super high-quality iOS client for iPhone equipped users to feel like this is a viable option.
iChat. With iChat and an AIM, Google Talk or MobileMe account (or connected to a Jabber server) you can video chat with another Mac user. iChat is a base part of OS X. Not only does it do basic video chats, it includes some other great features. iChat really is a central hub for a wide range of communications capabilities, mostly technical in nature. Transferring files, remote screen sharing (the full interactive kind), walking through presentations and video conferences with up to 4 people are all possible.
Advantages: Very good video quality over a decent connection. Supports up to 4 simultaneous video chats at once - great for a small conference. Has many of the filters and capabilities of Photo Booth, so you can make your video chat occur on a moving roller coaster if you want. The iChat Theater is great for walking a couple of people through a document or presentation. The screen sharing feature allows you to do complete technical support for another Mac user.
Disadvantages: No mobile support. If you are connecting with someone else and they don't have iChat, it's hit or miss as to what functionality you will have. Video conference with more than two people appears to require everyone on the same service (not some on AIM, some on Google Talk). File transfers rarely seem to work correctly.
Summary: iChat isn’t going anywhere because it is the base method from Apple for IM chats on OS X. Apple now has two different and incompatible video sharing technologies (FaceTime and iChat), so it will be interesting to see where this goes. My take is that while FaceTime is a really easy to use consumer oriented product, iChat is more oriented towards work and collaboration tasks. As I researched this topic I discovered a huge number of great features in iChat that I didn't know about and will be writing up shortly.
If you feel compelled to move away from Skype and need to do video calls, any one of these three tools are a decent replacement. If your video calls tend to be business related, iChat provides all of the sharing technologies you could need for Mac to Mac communications. If you deal with a heavily mixed platform environment, Google's GTalk and video plugin will give you the best cross platform support.
FaceTime is the most promising of these technologies because it seamlessly integrates voice calling and video, allowing you to transition on demand (assuming both sides have the same capabilities).
Personally I wish video calling was as standardized as voice calling; when I call a person I don't think about which handset or carrier they use, I just dial the number. Over the next few years virtually every mobile phone sold will have video calling capabilities, yet if I can't perform a video call from my iPhone on AT&T's 3G service to a friend running an Android based phone on Verizon, where's the value? Virtually every laptop and netbook sold in the last 2-3 years has a video camera set up for video chat, yet they are not compatible with one another.
As a consumer, I just want it all to work together. If Skype, iChat, FaceTime and GTalk could all video chat with one another the world would be a better place.