Multi-Party Conversations and Conferencing Services – There is a Difference

Over the past few months I have had reason to host, or participate in, voice calls involving more than two parties. Product demonstrations, daily Squawk Box sessions and weekly “broadcast” calls involving 200 or more participants have become part of my routine. But each is a different type of multi-party call.

Yesterday, along with several of my Contacts, I was involved in a test, initiated by Borderless Communicator’s Hudson Barton, of several of these services:

  • Skype’s “Conference Call”: hosted through the Skype Windows/Mac/Linux client where a Skype user can host a Multi-Party call but use of the term “Conference” call is a misnomer. Free for Skype participants; SkypeOut charges apply to participants on the PSTN. Up to 25 participants
  • HiDef Conferencing: hosting business grade conference calls with a user management interface operated by the call’s “moderator” or “host”. Monthly subscription required to host; unlimited free access for Skype participants; toll charges may apply for participants calling in via the PSTN. Up to 500 participants
  • iotum Calliflower: again hosting a multi-party calls that can be managed by a “moderator” or “host” party. “Free” participation; however, participant responsible for any toll charges to reach Free Conference Call server, and
  • Skypecast: a Skype service for hosting public “voice chat” rooms where participants can discuss a topic of interest. Public access; free but only accessed as a Skype user; no PSTN participation. Up to 100 participants. Popular use: learning English at Kantalk.

I can see four types of multi-party.calls:

  • Ad hoc multi-party calls, such as what is misnamed Skype Conference Call. Informal, host can easily add/remove participants, but no other participant management features. All participants are active; no agenda (think the “UNconference” call)
  • Conference calls which are often scheduled, usually have an agenda and where participants are all active but can be managed by the host (and/or other designated participants).
  • Broadcast calls, such as training presentations, news and analyst conferences, large audience sales presentations, etc. where there is a call administrator and usually one or two active participants who will make a presentation to an audience of several hundred or even a thousand passive participants.
  • Public voice chats, such as Skypecasts where any Skype user can join provided they find the link (either by email or text chat invitation or from a directory of Skypecasts).

While all these types of calls use technology that merges the various voice streams to be heard by all participants, the user interface and degree of active participation are the key differentiators:

  • Ad hoc multi-party calls: you can host a multi-party call simply by selecting multiple Skype and/or SkypeOut contacts and starting what is labeled as a Skype Conference call. If you see a need to add another participant, either add a Skype/SkypeOut Contact or call up an additional SkypeOut number. The host can also remove participants from the call at will. In yesterday’s call we had excellent HD Voice quality, we could see who was speaking (see halos around Dan and Hudson, only is Skype for Windows) but individual participants manage features such as muting their own microphone. You can definitely detect who is on a SkypeOut connection due to the more limited audio bandwidth of a SkypeOut connection. Since the host is operating the call through his/her local PC, these quality of these calls can also be subject to variables such as the host’s CPU power and Internet connection (especially the upload speed). Good enough for consumers and internal business calls but definitely not business grade. In a different graphic format, .Skype for Mac lets you see who is talking, including individual volume levels. Requires third party product, such as Pamela or Skylook, to record a call.

Free Conference Call Participant View (pre-Calliflower)

  • A true Conference Call is one where an administrator or host effectively “chairs” the call, has the option to schedule the call and provide an agenda, can manage each user’s level of active participation (mute/unmute, hand raising) and provide a hosted recording capability. Also these business grade calls are server-hosted to provide a consistent and manageable level of robustness and reliability as well as overall voice quality. Both HiDef Conferencing and iotum’s Free Conference Call have these capabilities.
    • While HiDef Conferencing provides excellent HD Voice quality for all participants connected via Skype and has a Host user interface to manage the call, it could use a web-based interface for participants to see who is on a call, who is speaking and provide a common chat “wall”. At one point during the test call, one participant went over to a PSTN connection and there was a very noticeable deterioration in his voice quality while on that connection.
    • iotum’s Free Conference call has the above-noted participant user interface features but is difficult to enter (while not a requirement, having a Facebook account makes it easier to access). Limited by its architecture to the legacy PSTN audio bandwidth, call quality is acceptable but not HD Voice. It had a significant call quality issue for one participant and needs a “Leave Call” button on the participant user interface. On the other hand iotum’s Free Conference Call has been shown to be robust and reliable enough to handle their daily Squawk Box conference call with relative ease; the ability to see who is participating and a chat “wall” are major benefits.
  • In a Broadcast Call there are usually one or a few presenters while an audience passively listens unless they “raise a hand” to ask questions or make a point. When HiDef Conferencing calls get to the 100 participant level, it has usually become a Broadcast call. (In fact, VAPPS hosts the voice component of several other conferencing and meeting services, such as InstantTeleseminar)
  • Our experience with the Skypecast trial today was one where there were significant difficulties joining the Skypecast (only four of our seven participants successfully got in) but where there was excellent voice quality. Limited participant management by host who can mute/unmite and eject a participant. Requires third party product, such as Pamela or Skylook, to record a call.

Some conclusions:

  • Skype should rename their basic “Conference Call” to “Multi-Party Call”. Its service is effectively a multi-party scaling of my former Bell Canada “3-party call” service. The initiator of the call hosts the call on his/her PC and does not always have complete control over call quality and robustness of the call.
  • Conference calls are hosted calls with “moderated” participant management. The key differentiator here is the user interface for both the host and the participants as well as the ease of call access by the participants. While the ability to link the voice streams of all the participants is common to all these services, overall call quality itself can be another differentiator.
  • Hudson measured some call parameters during each call. Basically all services were in the same ball park for jitter and packet loss (none to <1%) – most participants connected to the calls via either Skype or SkypeOut; on the Skype Conference Multi-Party Call latencies were definitely related to the distance of the participant from my hosting connection.

Tags: Skype, Conference Call, Skype Conference Call, HiDef Conferencing, iotum, Free Conference Call, Skypecast, Borderless Communicator, Hudson Barton, VAPPS Inc., Instant Teleseminar

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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