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Video Calling Options: Dialing H.323/SIP From Your Desktop
October 1, 2012 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
Simulated Image of Telepresence Options Publisher, Howard Lichtman, Calling From His Desktop To A Polycom Room System
Recently a friend approached me with a problem. He was looking for way to place a video call from his desktop, without spending any money. Easy as pie, right? There plenty of choices, ranging from free commercial solutions to free trials of high quality enterprise apps. But there was a twist, my friend wanted to directly dial a traditional, H.323/SIP meeting room appliance. A little trickier, but still possible. At this point it occurred to me that I write about these solutions all the time, but never really looked at the options from a 10,000 foot view.
The options roughly break down into two major categories. It isn't a completely clean breakdown, as there are a number of solutions that overlap between the two. But for the purpose of discussion, these categories can be still be helpful. Basically, my friend had a choice between installing an app which natively speaks H.323 and/or SIP, or using a service that provides interoperability. While other methods of providing interop do exist, such as purchasing enterprise gateways, we were looking for free and easy solutions. Turns out there are plenty of ways to get this done, read on to see how I break down the options.
H.323/SIP Desktop Applications
All of the top traditional videoconferencing vendors now have desktop / tablet / phone apps designed to extend the reach of their customers' existing videoconferencing infrastructure. Many of them natively speak either H.323 or SIP, while the rest require additional infrastructure, gateways, or services. These products are often advertised as "free." Technically, this is true. Just like me, you can have, Avaya Flare, Cisco Jabber, EasyMeeting, FuzeBox, LifeSize ClearSea, Polycom RealPresence, Radvision (Avaya) Scopia Mobile, Spontania, and VidyoMobile all on your iPad without paying a penny (see above). Of course, I can't make calls with most of them, but no one said calling was free, right? Making calls generally requires either a license for the application, or connection to a back-end service. In this respect, the desktop world is very similar to the iPad world. Most of the apps listed above exist, in some form, on the desktop, and similarly require some form of licensing.
Note: I tried to open each of the H.323 capable apps listed/linked above on my iPad, and all of them required an account/login with one exception. Polycom RealPresence Mobile opens up to a video self-view, next to a dialpad. I was able to immediately dial by IP to several H.323 endpoints located around the world. However, Polycom's desktop options (CMA and M100) both require some form of licensing. As far as I know (please correct me in the comments), there is still no truly free desktop H.323 video client.
Many, if not all, of these solutions offer free trials for their desktop apps. I have made successful calls on nearly all of them over the last year, and they provide an acceptable H.323/SIP desktop experience. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but they are all usable. However, you should note that some of these solutions, in particular the enterprise desktop clients, can be a little tricky to work with, and I would recommend doing a few test calls before the actual meeting.
In the past, traditional video codecs were generally enterprise, not consumer, appliances and required a certain level of technical support. For example, traditional codecs didn't always play nicely with firewalls. When the vendors originally adapted these protocols to a Windows environment for their desktop apps, these issues didn't magically go away. To be fair, many of these apps are now on their third or fourth iteration, and most work flawlessly every time, but I would still highly recommend making at least one test call.
Cloud Interoperability Services
Another way to connect desktop to H.323 is by using a cloud based meeting room. The Cloud VC field is becoming quickly crowded by offerings from existing video vendors as well as emerging companies in this market (the table above is an incomplete sampling). In the simplest of terms, these companies host online video meeting rooms (similar to audio conferencing meet-me rooms), designed to allow connections from a variety of desktop and traditional VC solutions.
These meeting rooms provide an elegant answer to the interoperability question. Imagine you need to host a video meeting with five people, using five different video applications. You could try to figure out if any of them are compatible and ask people to switch clients to make it work, or you could just use a meet-me room that supports all of them. It is clearly preferable to let each user call on their app of choice, rather than forcing people to download compatible clients. Coordinating a meeting of 5 busy people is stressful enough without the headache of choosing who's video app to use.
There is a lot of discussion about the nuts and bolts behind the scenes of these cloud services. For example, there have been many articles written about the benefits of the virtualized software architecture supporting some of these solutions. While this is certainly important, it is not of interest to my friend, who just wants to make this one call. From his perspective, for his one meeting, all that matters is that these services will allow his desktop PC to talk with an H.323 device.
Originally, we were looking for a way to directly dial desktop to H.323. While some cloud-based room solutions have the ability to dial out. most cloud video rooms require all meeting attendees to dial into the meeting room. Some may bemoan the lack of direct. person to person, dialing, but I don't think there is a problem the meet-me room dynamic. A full discussion of the current ongoing sea change in meeting dynamics would be interesting, but is beyond the scope of this article. Bottom line, 100 billion minutes of audio conference calls shows that we are clearly comfortable with meet-me.
Until we come up with a universal dialing plan (a video version of our universal telephone numbers), meet-me will generally be as easy, or easier, than direct dialing for video. In an enterprise setting, your IT department or VC service provider can create a directory, which helps to make direct dialing easier, and there are active projects underway attempting to build global directories. However, no directory is complete or universal, and when you want to do video with an off-directory person, a meet-me room is a great option.
Cloud-based solutions generally have a monthly or per-minute cost, although some recent announcements give us reason to expect potential disruption in the near future. For now, most of these services offer a free trial. Pick one and make a couple test calls (although in my experience, these solutions tend to just work) and you are good to go. Again, for the purpose of this discussion, we are focusing on the guy just trying to make this one call. If you are making purchasing decisions for a large enterprise deployment, you would obviously want to oversee a thorough round of testing in your network environment.
Things are changing quickly in this arena, with even newer technologies like H.265 and WebRTC on the not-so-distant horizon. Even here at Telepresence Options, we can't always catch everything. If this article missed any notable choices, please let me know in the comment section below.
About the Author
David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.
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