Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
Can You See Me Now?
By Mike Gould
Remember the way the future was supposed to be? Flying cars, Rosie the robot maid, video on your telephone? Well, forget about the cars, and a good thing too, IMHO; people haven't mastered driving in 2D yet - 3D navigation would be a nightmare. Roomba vacuums are the closest we have to Rosie, but video phones are almost there, as long as you don't mind talking via your computer.
VoIP You may recall an article I wrote back in 2005 about how you could now make long-distance phone calls via the Internet (http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.94.shtml). In it I went over the issues regarding Voice over Internet Protocol, and how it was going to revolutionize the phone system. And so it did. And now in addition to just talking to your clients, friends, and family, you can now see them as you talk.
Software from Skype is still one means of doing this, but there are a bunch of other software/hardware combos out there that do the same thing. I got involved in this a couple of years ago when a client asked me to set up a system so she could see her grandkids in California.
This came up again recently when my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and wife all got identical Apple MacBook laptops. All of Apple's laptops come with video cameras and microphones built-in, and iChat software pre-installed such that setting up video chat is almost a no-brainer, much the same way telephones are these days. (Um, maybe not; I don't know how to run most of the apps on my cell phone, but that's another story.)
Built-in video cameras are not exclusive to Apple; the Sony VAIO had this available way before Apple did, and with a nifty swivel feature so that you could rotate it around and pickup people sitting in front of you for group conferencing. (This feature is a plot device in Cryptonomicon, a very cool techno thriller by Neal Stephenson. Strongly recommended reading.) Apple finally got with the program with a Firewire-based camera called the iSight back in 2003, and this is what I purchased when I first started messing with video chat. And that is what I still use with my desktop system when I need video communication.
Headsets and Hand-Shaking
This whole video communication thing is an outgrowth of the Instant Messaging (IM) phenomena that is all the rage these days, especially among the youth contingent. To take part in this you need:
- A computer with a broadband connection (modems are way too slow for video, although you can do voice-only chats with them)
- A video camera, either built in to your laptop/monitor, or plugged in to it via a USB or Firewire (better) connector
- Speakers (or headset)
- A microphone, usually built-in to the camera, or used in a headset with an earphone
- Suitable software, usually provided by your IM host or downloaded from somewhere
- An account on an IM host, such as AOL, MSN or Apple
- A buddy to chat with
As far as the host is concerned, there are many to choose from. MSN is very popular with PC users, Apple hosts .mac accounts for free, and anybody can sign up with AIM. The MSN software is called MSN Messenger, Apple comes with iChat AV pre-loaded, and the AOL service uses AIM.
The process works like this: first, sign up with a hosting service, which is usually free. Mac users can sign up for a free 30 trial membership on .mac; after the 30 days your membership goes away, but your iChat identity is still alive. iChat uses the same protocols as AIM does, so Mac users can communicate with anyone using that flavor of chat. And Mac users can also use any of the other compatible software packages out there.
PC users can log onto the MSN Messenger site (URL below) or AOL to sign up and carry on. There are lots of other hosting services and chat protocols out there, the ones mentioned here are just some of the more-known examples. There are also clients such as Jabber that will interface with just about any of the chat systems out there.
Once you have signed up and have a user name, you can fire up the program, and go looking for your buddies online. You usually need to talk to them to find out their buddy name and when they will be available. Once you hook up with them, you add their names to your buddy list and you can hook up with a click the next time. Your buddy list is like your email address book: a list of those you regularly chat with.
The Family that Chats Together (Shows Off Hats Together)
Back to my side of the story, my wife Salli and her mom and sister are now video chat enabled. So we now have stations in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and Flint and Ann Arbor. With the iChat setup, we can even do multiple chats with everyone online at once. We haven't tried this yet but it is possible. Salli video chats with her mom in Florida, showing off her latest hairstyle and such, and Salli's sister chats with their mom, keeping her abreast of developments in Flint.
As always, there is a business angle. Here's a good way to check in with salesmen on the road, who might be introducing you to a new client. Or you might be showing your agent a new product by holding it in front of the camera. Or just chatting with a business colleague to see how she or he is feeling about something. It's all about communication; telephone conversations and email don't convey the full range of emotion often necessary for the development of a trusted relationship. And business is all about trust.
Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.