Videoconferencing over the Internet is in the spotlight at Internet World this week, with Microsoft, Intel and VocalTec announcing products for the business and consumer markets.
As promised when the companies joined forces on Internet telephony in July, products from Microsoft and Intel support the H.323 standard for videconferencing. VocalTec's Internet Phone with Video, an upgrade to Internet Phone 4.0, does not. But VocalTec has been developing an H.323 version in parallel and expects it to be available in the first quarter of next year, a VocalTec product manager says. VocalTec has also announced Internet Phone Release 4 for Windows 3.1.
All products are on display at Internet World in New York City this week. Intel is targeting Internet Video Phone 1.0, a beta of which is now available, at the consumer market. Microsoft's NetMeeting 2.0, the latest beta of which offers videoconferencing, and VocalTec's Internet Phone with Video are targeted at both the consumer and business markets.
The systems offer varying video transmission rates, depending on whether the products are used over a low-speed Internet connection or over a LAN, officials say. Intel's system offers 3 to 7 frames per second over the Internet, depending on the quality of the Internet connection and the video camera. Microsoft offers 4 to 5 frames per second over the Internet with a dial-up 28.8kbit/s modem connection, and up to 7 to 10 frames per second over a LAN. VocalTec offers 4 to 8 frames per second over the Internet with a 28.8kbit/s modem connection, and up to 15 frames per second over a LAN or a T1 connection.
Those transmission rates -- and the fact that the H.323 standard does not guarantee quality of service -- mean the systems could be a disappointment to consumers, who largely access the Internet through low-speed dial-up connections, one analyst says.
"The consumer is going to not like the fact that when they say hello it's going to take a second or more for the person at the other end to say, 'Are you talking to me?,' " says Elliot Gold, president of Telespan Publishing, a consultancy and newsletter publisher in Altadena, California.
"It makes them feel as if they're in the meeting instead of arbitrarily listening to a voice over the phone," says Rob Enderle, senior industry analyst at Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, California. "In some cases the 4 to 5 is better than nothing, but eventually I think we'll be able to see a lot better throughput."
Performance should improve when Intel rolls out its MMX multimedia instruction set-enhanced Pentiums in January, and when guaranteed classes of service are available over the Internet, Enderle says.
Still, Microsoft believes that corporate IS managers will be more interested in the application sharing features of NetMeeting than in running audio and video on their LANs.
"We give them the tools ... to turn off video and audio and only deploy dataconferencing," says Blake Irving, group manager, Internet platform and tools division. "It gives them a nice stepwise manner to turn on conferencing capability across the enterprise."
Microsoft's NetMeeting and Intel's Internet Video Phone betas are available free over the Internet. VocalTec's Internet Phone with Video is available over the Web as a free upgrade to Internet Phone 4.0; for new users it is priced at US$49.95, and for users of Internet Phone 3 it is priced at US$29.95.
The NetMeeting 2.0. beta is now available on the Web for Windows 95 and Windows NT.
Net Meeting on Windows 95, for audio and application sharing, requires at least a 66MHz 486 with 8Mb of RAM; for NT, it requires a 66MHz 486 with 16Mb of RAM. To run videoconferencing, Microsoft requires a minimum a 90-MHz Pentium with 16Mb of RAM for Windows 95 machines, although the recommended processor is a 133 MHz Pentium. For Windows NT, Microsoft recommends the same processor with 24Mb of RAM.
For Internet Video Phone, Intel recommends a 133MHz Pentium or higher and Windows 95. VocalTec recommends a 75MHz Pentium or faster and 16Mb of RAM, on Windows 95 or Windows NT 4.0; Internet Phone 4.0 for Windows 3.1 requires a 33MHz 486 with 8Mb of RAM.