Videochat: skype, google et al.

Posted on 29 May 2013

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With all these camera’s in our phones and laptops it’s easy to stay in touch. Still, it’s not as easy as the old fashioned phone call.

Why?

Because it’s just not that simple. Unlike just typing in a phone number you have install software, find out if your friends use the same and a lot of times things just are not very clear.

Which platform?

First step is to decide between Skype, Outlook, Facebook, Facetime or Google. This is not that easy to start with.

  • Facetime is very simple to use, that’s a big plus. But it’s Apple-only! So you can’t videochat with android or PC users. You can only videochat with one person at a time.
  • Skype seems to be old-fashioned but it works on almost all platforms, like windows, apple and android. Now that Microsoft has bought Skype, you can even link it to your Outlook and Facebook accounts. After linking to facebook you can videochat with your facebook contacts from skype, which is NICE!. I don’t see the added value of linking it to your outlook account. It would be nice if I could merge them and then have my skype credentials replaced with the outlook credentials. BTW: You can also unlink them (facebook.com > app center > your apps | skype.com > sign in > unlink). The only downside of skype is that it only supports group-calls without video.
  • With Facebook in windows it’s also fast, but you have to install just another (different) plugin. The great thing is that most people are on facebook, but on the other hand it’s not that simple to find someone you need from that (seemingly) unsorted list. The other problem with the facebook list is that it doesn’t show who has a videochat enabled and who doesn’t. And that you can make videochat calls to people on the facebook iphone app, that doesn’t  support videocalling! Also, it doens’t support group calls! I guess videochat doesn’t work on the android app or apple osX?
  • Then Outlook.com: they don’t have videochat, it’s chat only. Outlook just doesn’t make sense! I guess they want us to use skype instead of their discontinued MSN.
  • And last on the list: Google. This one is cross-platform like Skype. But to me it’s a bit confusing. If you get the hang of it it’s great though: it supports all platforms (iOS, android and webapp (both windows and mac) and they support group-videochats.

For now, I think I am going to stick with Skype until I get my head around Google.

Why do I prefer Google+ Hangout? It’s cross platform (web, iphone and android app), it supports video groupchat and almost everybody seems to be using it. Plus it might become an alternative to whatsapp too (adding computers to that game).

Why NOT Google+ Hangout?

First of all, their name and logo don’t make sense. Everything is four-colored, but this is a green thingy. It’s called Hangout, but it’s not a product on google.com. You need to start using Google + or Google mail first, since can get there through Google + (which seems to be like another social site) or through google mail > chat. Second of all, it should have it’s own place in their top menu instead of being part of Google+. Third: it’s not clear what the difference is between Google Hangout, Google Talk and Google Chat. You even seem to need another plugin for Google Chat then for hangout.

A great thing is their directory, but at the same time that’s the most confusing part of Hangout. In Google Talk and Chat, they only show the people from your gmail contacts list, with the active contacts on top. But in Hangout, you see a random (?) selection of names with pictures. You need to use the ‘New Hangout’ field to type the name of the people you need and that produces an enormous list with many dead accounts (more about that later). This is annoying.

Status

The first problem I have with Google Hangout is the status. In Google Talk and chat, they use icons for active (green) /busy (red line) /idle (orange clock) /offline (grey cross). They even have very nice camera icon to show if the contact has videochat enabled. One problem though: I have this big list of ‘idle’ (orange clock) contacts in Google Talk/chat, but they never respond to what I send them. So I made my own experiment and it seems to be the android talk app: When I go offline with my android phone, I will still shows as if I am ‘idle’. I guess this will not be fixed as chat and talk are being replaced with Hangout.

With Hangout on google.com (web) there is no ‘idle’: the active contacts have a green line under their picture, all the rest (idle, offline, busy) have just the picture without a green line. The stupid thing is that it’s different on the Google Hangout iphone app: The active people have a normal picture, the offline people have a greyed out picture. But in this app, the ‘idle’ people show as if they are active. Confusing! Another problem is that also with Google Hangout, you can make video calls to people that have (android) phones that do not support videocalls. I guess this will phase out as google chat/talk disappears.

The other problem is that with hangout there is no delivery status. In whatsapp and facebook, you get to see the last time someone was online and if (and when) your message is delivered. Google should really add online- and delivery status, see dead accounts for the reason why.

Dead accounts

At first sight it seems like Google is listing EVERYBODY that has a Google account. So I tested this from a new account that doesn’t have any contacts. Now when I type in my own name I get to see two records. The first one is my google+ account, with my picture. The second one is without picture. I don’t know where it is coming from, but I guess it’s my calender + youtube account. So I logged in, clicked on this placeholder for my picture and got this message:

Your full name is not being displayed on your profile page. This option is no longer supported in Google profiles. I have to choose between: Display my full name publicly | Delete my profile

So I deleted it. Now there is no room for a picture with my account anymore. But I still get to to see two accounts when I search my name in Hangout. Also, if I type in my own private e-mail address I find one account with the name ‘person unknown’. Maybe it takes some time, maybe it’s from some old e-mail I’ve once sent myself?

The big problem is that you I can even send these dead accounts a Hangout message. So with the current system, you will never know for sure if your friend has read your message. Worse: you will not be sure that they even know they are on Google Hangout!

Privacy

At first sight it’s frightening what Google does with my privacy. I could see my contacts mobile phone number and e-mail address when I type in their name to “hangout” with them. Then I found that it takes these details from my own records:

  • On iOS it takes all names and numbers from your iOS contacts. You can disable this through iphone > settings > privacy
  • Online and on android it also find people based on the e-mail or phonenumber in your gmail/google contacts list.

So it’s not as bad as it looks: they don’t publish your phone number or e-mail address. The only privacy-related problem might be that you are listed in their directory without your own knowing!  See dead accounts.

Conclusion

Google+ Hangouts is the best option, but still a bit confusing. They really need to sort out those dead accounts and/or add online- and delivery status!

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Posted in: Misc