Multi-platform Multi-media Calling

Wouldn’t it be terrific if you could use one integrated client software/service to do instant messaging, voice, video, and screen sharing (multi-media calling) across Mac, Windows and Linux (multi-platform)? Well we aren’t there yet but progress is being made.

Most multi-media calling capabilities use instant messaging (IM) as the foundation and interoperable solutions are available for IM chat. Multi-platform voice, video, and screensharing are still a challenge.

If you want to just interact with other Mac users, iChat does it all. It even does voice and video but not screensharing with Windows users who have AIM accounts. AIM is not the most popular client software/service*, however, so finding buddies could be difficult if you can’t convince them to subscribe to yet another service. I would like to hear from people who have thoroughly tested the x-platform interoperability to see if it is worthwhile trying to convince people to get AIM accounts. The probable deal breaker though is that the most useful feature, screensharing, is not supported X-platform.

* From wikipedia figures the current market share of IM services is approximately as follows:
1. Skype 309M
2. Windows Live Messenger 300M
3. Yahoo Messenger 248M
4. AIM (used by iChat which also has MobileMe) >100M
5. Jabber (used by Google Talk) 90M
(Tencent QQ has 783M active accounts but most of these are in China)

iChat windows showing video screensharing of a photo, instant messaging, and buddy list

Apple - Mac OS X Leopard - Features - iChat

Google Talk can use the iChat client on the Mac for instant messaging but that service doesn’t support voice, video, and screen sharing using iChat. X-platform (Mac and Windows) voice and video can be done within the Gmail service by installing the Google voice and video software and screensharing can be done by installing the Yuuguu software. Below is an interoperability matrix for Google Voice:

Google Talk Client choice

Google Talk client choice

Google Talk supports standards and native client choices on each platform which works well for instant messaging but voice calls only work between the Goggle Talk clients.

Skype is another popular online calling choice which is multi-platform (Mac, Windows, Linux) for IM, voice, and video. Yugma Skype edition is a Skype addon that provides multi-platform screen sharing. Skype is starting to offer integrated screen sharing through beta software (as opposed to using an add-on) but right now you can only share screens from a Mac to Mac or Mac to Windows and not from Windows. However, Skype is the closest thing to a full featured multi-platform multi-media client that is currently available.

Skype 4 for Windows

Skype 4.0 for Windows

Some day all of this will interoperate so you don’t have to use multiple redundant clients/services.
Until that day comes users who want multi-media calling to buddies on multiple platforms will probably need at least two or three clients:
– iChat (for Mac users)
– Google Talk
– Skype

Right now, Skype is the closest thing to a full featured multi-platform client, iChat offers the best integration for Mac users, and Google Talk is an up and coming contender that is particularly suitable for people that collaborate using Google applications.

Glossary:
Multi-platform = Mac, Windows, Linux
X-platform = more than 1 platform (usually Mac and Windows)
Multi-media = instant messaging, voice, video, screensharing

Computer Videoconferencing Webcams

While Windows PCs are easier to use with computer headsets, when it comes to webcams Macs are easier since all the recent models include built in iSight web cameras.

At the top of the Mac Screen is a buit-in iSight webcam (highlighted in red or you wouldn’t notice it)

Apple - iMac - A beautiful display. All the power you need. And more.

It’s not hard to find a suitable webcam however. Here are the ones recommended by Google for use with Googletalk:

If you don’t have a camera yet and want to get one, here are some cameras that we know work well with voice and video chat:

Skype has some information on video calls and also sells a full range of Logitech webcams.

The best bet is to use the webcams the video calling services recommend especially since they are in agreement.

Recommendation Example: Quickcam Pro 9000

Skype Shop - Webcams

Computer video conferencing tutorial is a good thorough reference source for tips, and also has recommendations for the same webcams but with more detailed information on the choices.

Get a Computer Headset

If you really want to communicate using your computer, get a computer headset.

Glen Sharp with Computer headset

glen headset small

Voice is still a killer app especially when combined with all the other things a computer can do. A headset allows you to talk and listen without annoying feedback or echo. You also will be heard more clearly using a headset mic especially in noisy environments. Make sure you get one with comfortable stereo headphones (both ears) so if you want to listen to music between calls you can do that too.

If your environment isn’t too noisy, the headphones are more important than the headset mic since the main audio quality factor is to stop the echo effect of the sound from the speakers feeding back into the mic. Headphones stop feedback into the mic so you can just use the normal computer mic like you would in speakerphone mode.

A headset can be obtained inexpensively (e.g. plantronics headset Futureshop Dynex headset) and all of them should work with your Windows PC. If you have a Mac, only USB interface mic inputs will work without an external amplifier.

There are several sources of information in choosing a computer headset:

How to choose a computer headset for skype

Plantronics (Skype) Headset reviews

I have found the Plantronics and Logitech headsets to be good however you shouldn’t pay more than $50 for a USB connected computer headset and you can find many that are perfectly adequate for $20.

Computer headset with USB interface

Logitech ClearChat Pro USB Headset - 981000010 - Compare Prices and Buy at PriceGrabber

On Windows PCs you can also use less expensive computer headsets that have headphone and mic mini-jack inputs.

Computer headset with mini-jack inputs

Computer headset minijack

Computer Microphones 101

This article contains some background on computer microphones and includes a caution about using mini-jack (headset) mics since they require signal amplification for use with Macs. Macs don’t include a mic input that will work with regular computer headsets with mini-jack mic input. The audio input on Macs is actually a line input which requires an amplified (externally powered) audio signal. For Macs, you need to use either a headset mic (and headphone) with a USB interface or use an audio amplifier for the mic audio input. Seth Weintraub on his Computerworld blog describes his experiences using computer headset mic inputs with Macs and recommends against using the headsets that have audio plugin USB adapters. Headsets that have a direct USB interface or higher quality adapters like the Griffin iMic don’t suffer the crashing problems that cheap USB adapters are prone to.

USB connected headsets are affordable and the hardware is compatible for both Window PCs and Macs. However, one advantage of headsets that use audio mini-jack input is that they can be less expensive and they don’t use up a USB port that may be required for other devices.

skitched-20090327-204252.jpg

The Griffin iMic is a USB connected device for the Mac that provides regular headphone and mic input plug-ins.

Griffin iMic

If you have an iMic it doesn’t save you a USB port but you can use the same computer headset with mini-jack inputs for both Windows PC and Mac and you get extra audio inputs/output and software in the package.

Another alternative is wireless headsets which either connect using a USB wireless antenna or using Bluetooth. These headsets have the advantage of being untethered but can cost quite a bit more.

What computer headset have you found works best for you?

Seeing is Believing Tech Support for Mac

Some incredible things happen on computer screens and sometimes they are hard to describe or they include a lot of information that is too much work to copy down.

If you need help with something that happened on your screen take a picture of your screen and send a copy to your tech support.

Macintosh Screen Capture

Besides the standard screen capture Command (Apple)-Shift-3, there are other ways to capture the screen.

If you have Mac OSX, it’s easy to use the built-in key commands for grabbing a screen.

* Press Command (Apple)-Shift-4. The pointer turns into a bull’s eye.
Select the area of the screen you wish to capture. The screen area is captured and saved as a PDF file called Picture 1 on your desktop.

* If you hold down Control-Command (Apple)-Shift-4 while clicking the bull’s eye, the image is stored on the clipboard.

Grab Utility

If you have Mac OSX, you can also use the Grab Utility. This allows you to capture windows that are open.

* Open Grab (located in Applications/Utility).

* Choose Capture > Timed Screen.

* When the Timed Screen Grab dialog opens, click Start Timer.

* Click the menu you want to capture and keep the mouse button pressed until the Timer Screen Grab dialog closes and the picture appears.

example timed menu image

Example of a timed screen capture of a menu.

* Use the Grab preferences for options such as showing the pointer.

pointer type selection

pointer type example

To keep things organized and for safe keeping you can select the Picture 1 pdf file on your desktop, rename the file with a memorable name of your choosing, and save it in your Pictures folder. If you are taking lots of screenshots you might even want to create a screenshots folder within your Pictures folder or even folders by date. Then you can easily find your screenshots that you can send to tech support and prove that you are not crazy.

Skitch

Many of the screen shots I use are Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

There are lots of free programs (like Skitch) for doing fancier screen shots and annotating or editing them afterwards but have fun with the basics first.

Seeing is Believing Tech Support for Windows

Some incredible things happen on computer screens and sometimes they are hard to describe or they include a lot of information that is too much work to copy down.

If you need help with something that happened on your screen take a picture of your screen and send a copy to your tech support.

Windows Screen Capture

The PRINT SCREEN key allows you to capture the Desktop or individual windows. You’ll have to look for this key on your keyboard, it’s placement varies with the type of keyboard.

To capture the entire screen:

* Press the PRINT SCREEN key. The entire screen image will be placed on the clipboard.

* Open an application such as Microsoft Word, pull down the Edit menu and choose Paste. Or, press Ctrl-V to paste.

To capture the current window on your screen:

* Press the ALT + PRINT SCREEN key. A screen shot of the currently selected window will be placed on the clipboard.

To keep things organized and for safe keeping you can open the Paint program that is included in Windows accessories and paste your screen shot in that application. Then save the file with a memorable name of your choosing as a .JPEG file in your My Pictures folder. If you are taking lots of screenshots you might even want to create a screenshots folder within your My Pictures folder or even folders by date. Then you can easily find your screenshots that you can send to tech support and prove that you are not crazy.

PS There are lots of free programs for doing fancier screen shots and annotating or editing them afterwards but have fun with the basics first.

Setup Google Talk (Windows)

First Register for a Gmail Google Account

If you don’t yet have a Gmail account, here is How to Register for Gmail (step by step) or How to Register for Gmail (the video).

Ways to use Google Talk

There are three ways to use Google Talk:

  1. Google Talk Gadget
  2. Google Talk Client
  3. Google Talk in Gmail

1. If you are a big time Google applications user you may have an iGoogle account or have installed the Google Talk Gadget on a web page. The gadget is one way to use Google Talk.

2. If your user group is all Windows users you can install the Google Talk Client software and do instant messaging, make calls, leave voice messages, and transfer files. The client software uses your Gmail contact list.

3. You can use Google Talk without installing the client software by just using the instant messaging capabilities provided with Gmail. You can also add voice and video chat to Gmail as explained in the next section.

Gmail Voice and Video Chat

Installing this software supplements instant messaging with your gmail contacts with the ability to also do a voice and video chat.

Screen Sharing with Mac or having Online Meetings

After configuring and installing the software described you should be well on your way in using Google Talk for instant messaging, voice calls, and voice with video calls. In a separate post I will provide information on how to do screen sharing for presentations, support, collaboration etc. between different computer types. If both people have Windows PCs, just use Google Talk through your client software or Gmail account but if you want to collaborate with people using Macs or you want to have a meeting with more than one person it gets a little more complicated.

Setup iChat and Google Talk for your Mac

Getting an iChat account through AOL instant Messenger

This assumes you don’t have a a mobileme (previously known as .mac) account which is another way to activate iChat.

Configuring iChat for Google Talk

This allows you to do googletalk instant messaging using iChat. Unfortunately iChat’s voice, video, and screensharing capabilities do not work with googletalk but you can activate googletalk voice and video using Gmail as described in the next section.

Gmail Voice and Video Chat

Installing this software supplements instant messaging with your gmail contacts with the ability to also do a voice and video chat. If you don’t yet have a Gmail account, here is How to Register for Gmail (step by step) or How to Register for Gmail (the video).

Screen Sharing with Windows or having Online Meetings

After configuring and installing the software described you should be well on your way in using iChat and Google Talk for instant messaging, voice calls, and voice with video calls. In a separate post I will provide information on how to do screen sharing for presentations, support, collaboration etc. between different computer types. If both people have Macs, just use iChat through your AIM or mobileme account but if you want to collaborate with people using Windows or you want to have a meeting with more than one person it gets a little more complicated.

Registering for a Google Account

This lesson takes you step by step through registration for a Gmail account which is also used for access to all the Google account services (or How to Register for Gmail (the video)). I have used red boxes to highlight the part of the screen you need to pay close attention to. You won’t see these red boxes on the actual web page. In the instructions I have put square brackets around the text on links or buttons.

Google Canada web page

google-sign-in.png

Type in the address of the Google Canada site into the address field as highlighted in the red box above. Then click the [Sign in] link.

Choose Gmail in the Google Accounts Page

google-accounts-gmail.png

Choose the [Gmail] link as shown highlighted by the red box. (It is preferable to create a Google account with Gmail rather than just an account as shown in the right hand corner).

Welcome to Gmail

gmail-email-from-google.png

You don’t have an account yet so you need to click on the link [Sign up for Gmail].

Create a Google Account for Gmail Part 1

google-accounts-p1.png

Enter your first name and last name. It is recommended for the desired login name to use your first name and last name separated by a period if it is available. The [check availability] button will let you know if your desired choice is available or you need to pick another alternative. Choose a hard to guess password that you will remember. Leave the default boxes checked as these are useful options.

Create a Google Account for Gmail Part 2

google-accounts-p2.png

A good security question is something that will help you if you forget your password but isn’t too obvious for someone else to use to bypass it. Your secondary email will be sent the information if you ever forget your password. Word verification is used to try to ensure that it is a person who is registering the account. You won’t see the same characters as above which in this case are rescompa. You should scan the terms of service to check that you are ok on the rules for providing it to you. Click the [I accept. Create my account.] button. You now have a Gmail account which you can also use with other Google services.

Computational Knowledge Engine?

Stephen Wolfram, of Mathematica fame, is creating high expectations for his new web application Wolfram Alpha that is intended to compute the answers to new natural language questions. Certainly this new web application sounds interesting. While we are waiting the estimated 2 months for the launch I’m sure he won’t mind if people checkout his book A New Kind of Science that is free online for reading or maybe buy a copy of Mathematica ($295 USD for a home edition).