Beyond Skype: VoIP Alternatives

Summary:Tired of Skype's problems? Don't trust Microsoft's plans for Skype? Then give these programs a try.

Did Skype's total failure last holiday season get you worried? Are you tired of Skype's generally poor quality even at its free price-tag? Afraid of what Microsoft might do with Skype? According to ZDNet's own unscientific survey, 41% of you are less likely to use MS-Skype.

So, what can you use instead of Skype? Here's my own personal list of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video-conferencing favorites. I've used all of these at one time or another and I was happy with the results. I also continue to use two of these programs.

What the programs I like all have in common is that they use open-protocols. These are SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard and Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP). This means if you have SIP or XMPP client you can use it to talk to anyone using a compatible client; if that is, they're on the same VoIP network.

For example, Iptel, Ekiga.net, and ippi are all fine SIP networks, but if you're only on one of them you can't talk to other SIP VoIP users on the other two and vice-versa. The same is true of XMPP/Jingle networks, and, for that matter all the other VoIP networks.

Skype only appears to be universal. It's actually just very popular. Skype uses a proprietary systems While there are ways to use Skype with other VoIP networks, such as Skype Connect to work with SIP VoIP systems and karaka Google project to create Skype/XMPP/Jingle gateways, Skype itself is designed to be closed whereas the SIP and XMPP/Jingle networks are designed to be open to anyone that uses their open protocols.

Enough of the technology, here are the programs.

I've used each of the following programs on a variety of operating systems including various Linux distributions, Windows XP and 7, and Mac OS X Snow Leopard. For my Internet connection, I have a 25-Megabit per second (Mbps) down and 3-Mbps up cable connection. With any voice connection, your speed is vital. While in theory you can go as low as 128 Kilobits per second (Kbps) for voice and 512-Kbps for video, in practice, I've found you're better off at least double that uplink speed.

All of these programs worked well for me or I wouldn't bother with discussing them. By this I mean I was able to talk and video-conference with people without annoying lag or latency problems.

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VoIP Client Reviews

Cisco TelePresence

When you're talking Skype alternatives, you're really talking low-end, free or low-cost programs and networks. But, say, you really need business level VoIP and video. In that case, you need Cisco TelePresence or, at a lower price-tag, Lotus Sametime. I've consulted on installations of both, and they work well. They're also enterprise solutions for big business; they're not for just shooting the breeze with a buddy or running a small company.

Ekiga:

Ekiga is probably the best known of the Linux VoIP clients; it's also available on Windows. On either platform it works well. It's a SIP client, but it also supports the H.323 video-conferencing protocol. With H.323, you can use Ekiga with the older Microsoft NetMeeting conferencing program. I've found that a very handy feature over the years. Unfortunately, when Microsoft "upgraded" NetMeeting to Windows Meeting Space with Vista, they also broke its compatibility with Ekiga and other third-party programs.

I like Ekiga, but these days I usually use the Google package described below on Linux.

Facetime:

Facetime, which now works for both Macs and iOS-based devices, is like so many other things from Apple. It works really well, it looks good, and it's proprietary as all can be. It will only work with other Facetime users, no not even iChat users.

Mind you, since it's based on SIP, it should work with other SIP networks or softphones, but it doesn't. Steve Jobs said that they'd open up Facetime, but nope, he hasn't done it. With most Apple products that may not matter to most users. With VoIP though the whole point is that you need to talk to other people and with Facetime you can only talk to other people using Facetime. To me, that makes Facetime a non-starter.

Google Chat/Google Talk/Google Voice:

You'd think Google would make it easy to use their XMPP-based VoIP and video services. They don't. Google Chat is Google's IM service; Google Talk is its VoIP and video-service; and Google Voice is Google's private-branch exchange (PBX) telephony service. When you put them all together, and you can do so via the Gmail interface, you end up with a complete VoIP/video and landline/mobile phone service. It works quite well, but I could wish that Google would make it easier to understand how the pieces all fit together. For example, you can make landline calls from Google Talk if, and only if, you have a Google Voice account.

You can use a Windows client to use this package of services, but Linux and Mac users must install a Google Talk video and voice plug-in to their Web browsers. Unfortunately, the full package of services is only available for U.S. users. If you're not in the States you can't use Google Talk or Google Voice. However, U.S. Google VoIP users can use it to talk and video with XMPP users outside of the U.S. and vice-versa.

I use this combination a lot, but then I figured out how it all comes together and I live in the U.S. I think that if Google packaged it up correctly and opened it up to the rest of the world, it would be a Skype killer, but it's not there yet.

OoVoo:

OoVoo, funny name and all, has long been Skype's most direct competitor. Its parent company claims though to be more of a video-conferencing service than a VoIP package. As such it sees its competition as being more with GoToMeeting or Cisco TelePresence. Be that as it may, I've found the free version to do far better at Skype's kind of features than Skype. Its video and voice both tend to be better.

On the other hand, ooVoo also uses a proprietary protocol and can only be used, for two way and conferencing with ooVoo users. It's also only available on Windows, Mac OS X, and a handful of Android phones. It will be available on the iPad 2 soon.

All that said, it's the other VoIP/video program I use a lot. It has a good size user population and in my experience it delivers better video and voice than any product or service this side of TelePresence.. Now, if only the company supported Linux I'd be perfectly happy with it.

Conclusions:

What I really want though is a better program than any of these. I have problems with each of them. I'd really like to see an open-source, SIP or XMPP client that was easy to use, delivered great video and voice quality and was available anywhere in the world. If someone can manage to improve their existing program, or create a new one that delivers all three of these qualities, I think in a few years we might be saying "Skype? What's Skype? But, we're not there yet. Darn it.

Related Stories:

How Skype does, and doesn't, work

Microsoft’s Ballmer $7.7-Billion Skype Blunder

MS buys Skype - Does this make you more or less likely to use the service?

What Microsoft’s Skype deal means

A Game of Clue: What Killed Skype

Topics: Networking, Collaboration, Emerging Tech, Google, Social Enterprise, Telcos, Unified Comms

About

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, aka sjvn, has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the cutting edge, PC operating system; 300bps was a fast Internet connection; WordStar was the state of the art word processor; and we liked it.His work has been published in everything from highly technical publications... Full Bio

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