Thinking About Skype

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Skype, and so here I’ll share some of my recent thoughts. I hope that you’ll join the thinking and discussion by commenting below!

My Own Use of Skype

I have used Skype for three or four years now. I use it at home to videoconference with family for holidays and special events. At work, I use Skype mainly as a chat tool to keep in touch with my videoconference colleagues – especially those at educational service agencies who have bridges. It’s so handy for troubleshooting when I’m on the phone with my school who is having trouble with a VC, and I can Skype the person hosting the VC on their bridge to brainstorm solutions. Once in a while I use Skype at work for a VC or phone conference, but very rarely.

My Schools and Skype

I have 70 schools with H323 videoconferencing, and we’ve invested a lot of time in creating a support structure and a menu of content to offer our schools. Up until last year, most of my districts were still using T1s as their connection to the Internet, so bandwidth has been (and still is in some cases) very tight and carefully monitored. Several of my districts block Skype due to concerns about the health of the school network. These challenges have mostly kept Skype off the radar in our districts.

One notable exception is a district using Skype to VC with a home-bound student for some daily instruction. There may be additional uses of Skype that I am unaware of.

Difference Between H323 and Skype

Just in case you’re not familiar with the difference between H323 videoconferencing and Skype videoconferencing, here’s a quick rundown:

  • Skype is free; H323 requires special videoconference equipment
  • H323 generally has good echo cancellation for classroom videoconferencing; Skype is designed for a person with a headset at a computer so echos can be a problem
  • H323 is standards based, so you can connect to any other H323 device; Skype requires Skype on the computer you connect to

Is H323 Dead?

Last week, TelBitConsulting did a review of Skype and asked if H323 videoconferencing is dead:

Well H.323 is not really dead, but, you get the idea, maybe….ah….read on.

Except in the corporate world where high definition is the thing, I believe, now, that the standards-based H.323 videoconferencing market may not reach the masses as I, many years ago, had hoped would happen.

Don’t get me wrong, videoconferencing will still be a mass market (not counting corporate, education, telemedicine where it is doing very well thank you) success, but, the new king of videoconferencing for the masses may be (already is?) the Internet-based free (or very low cost) applications using a computer (laptop, network, cell phone, or desktop) and a web cam (built in or added).

I keep wondering about the future of videoconferencing in schools. I see the value of all the content we’ve built up around H323, but I also see the barriers to schools using VC on a mass level (beyond 30%). Will a tool come along that helps more schools access VC content? Would Skype be that tool?

So next, here’s some of my thoughts on pros & cons:



  • Web cameras don’t usually allow camera presets and various views of the classroom
  • Does sharing the computer – a PPT presentation for example – work well enough for events like MysteryQuest?
  • Can’t do multipoint calls for events like MysteryQuest, ASK, etc?
  • Lots of H323 content providers not available via Skype
  • Hard to restrict how many calls occur at once in low bandwidth schools (easier with a VC cart)
  • Some school technology directors have valid concerns about Skype on their networks

Future Developments

I certainly plan to keep an eye on what is happening with Skype in schools. An interesting development is the OSU Internet2 team working on a Skype to H323 gateway. If regional service agencies could install a box like this to provide access to H323 content to schools with Skype, more schools could take advantage of the H323 content. I am anxious for this tool to become available to try out.

It’s hard to tell what is next for the videoconferencing world, but it seems that those of us in H323 videoconferencing should keep up on what is happening with Skype in schools as well. To that end, I’ve added a new tab to my blog to keep resources that I find about Skype. I will still spend the majority of my time on H323 videoconferencing, but I want to know what the “Skypers” are up to as well!

Your Turn

What do you think of Skype? Have you used it in your classroom? How would you compare it to H323 videoconferencing? What do you see as the future of VC in schools? Please comment!

0 replies on “Thinking About Skype”

  1. Desktop oriented systems such as Vidyo are the future of the industry.

    H323 based systems based on MCU’s requiring large and tightly managed bandwidth will slowly give way to newer technology that uses less bandwidth and can handle packet loss.

    It somewhat reminds me of the switch from TDM PBX’s to VOIP phone systems.

    • Scott – but desktop systems are inherently for one person at a desktop. What about group meetings?? Do you see desktop systems getting rigged to work successfully in a room?

      • Janine,

        Today systems such as Vidyo have their own room system that connect to the desktops natively. A gateway device can connect H323 systems to newer architecture systems such as Vidyo.

  2. i) H.323 is firmly entrenched in the corporate space, and generates $$. ii) Skype has a big user base, but it’s free. Skype also has competition from OoVoo, DimDim, and several others who will cause the Skype franchise to fragment. iii) CISCO and probably others are now talking about entering the personal/home video-conferencing market. iv) There is clear need for the H.323 (corporate) world and the Skype (residential) world to inter-operate with each other (or one of them slowly gets eliminated).

    I personally believe that the higher quality (720p and 1080p) H.323 systems will slowly infiltrate the personal VC segment. Not sure if Skype can displace corporate VC systems. Skype, watch out!

    • As PC’s get more powerful and software improves, desktop oriented system will begin delivering 720P and 1080P. Shapes up to a classic confrontation in the market. The entrenched vendors catering to the high end of the market trying to defend from above versus the disruptive technology from the new player(s) starting in the low end and then slowly moving up market.

      • I agree that we are on the threshold of seeing 720p desktop videoconferending. Webcams from Logitech already support HD. Bandwidth is becoming abundantly available, with several providers across the world introducing 100Mbps nertworks. multi-core PCs with GPUs take care of the compute issue.

        The big question however is whether an open standard such as H.323 will win over a closed proprietary system such as Skype. History demonstrates that open standards eventually win!

  3. I believe both H.323 and webcam ( I use Adobe Connect) have their place in K12 education. H.323 for classroom to classroom collaborations and vendor video conferences; webcam for desktop professional development and one to one or one to many.
    As far as SKYPE, there is no security for the network when using it so we do not allow it to come into our system. We make sure we use things that won’t compromise our network.

  4. I am puzzled that nobody is mentioning SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) in this discussion. Similar to H323 in its usage area, SIP is a lighter protocol and more readily available on desktops.

    Compared to Skype, SIP is an open protocol, meaning that equipment produced by different vendors can interoperate. “All” VoIP equipment uses SIP, and it works equally well for video. In fact many VC vendors support SIP.

    In my opinion, Skype’s key advantage compared to other systems (apart from the price tag) is that it works from home, despite NATs and firewalls. Similar functionality is now available for SIP through so-called ICE/TURN technology.

    We will be watching whether SIP will consume some of the Skype’s market share in the years to come.

  5. Check out “Mirial” – desktop software, does H.323, does SIP, does HD (with suitable camera and PC).

    • That sounds really interesting Geoff. Do you know any schools using it? Range of cost? Looks like it requires the server plus the software on the PC right?

  6. “What do you see as the future of VC in schools?”

    There are lots of different ways to look at this, from community, technology, equipment, pedagogy and other perspectives.

    1) Community: Individuals vs. Groups –

    Skype isn’t optimized for groups where H.323 systems have been. One can connect a good camera (firewire camcorder) and echo canceling speaker/microphones (Phoenix Duet, etc.). But that have very low usability compared to an integrated appliance with high quality, pan/tilt/zoom cameras and good quality microphones with echo canceling built in. Group ease of use goes to the incumbents.

    Individual ease of use goes to Skype (and other desktop solutions.) This is because of the H.323 protocol. It is easy to make a high quality H.323 application (for Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.) but the protocol sucks. It dies across firewalls.

    Individuals are also looking for low bandwidth and high quality solutions as they are often “on the move.” Such solutions typically use adaptive encoding which H.323 doesn’t (easily) support.

    For groups we accept high bandwidth requirements because we want significantly higher resolution (larger rooms) and we can typically afford to put more bandwidth into a limited number of fixed locations.

    2) Protocols – Standard vs. Proprietary

    In general, schools would do well to use VC equipment that supports open standards. Standards eventually lead to wider adoption, greater choice and lower cost. However it takes FOREVER for standards to develop and often we can’t (or don’t want to) wait.

    Because of it’s reliance on proprietary protocols, there has been many fewer devices that support Skype. And it is hard to find a Skype MCU.

    3) Point-to-point (p2p) vs. Multi-point –

    We need to be able to do both point-to-point and multi-site conferences. Solutions that are only point-to-point don’t provide sufficient flexibility for education.

    Multi-point conferencing needs to be easy to use. Today’s audio conferencing is a good model, dial a number, enter a code and you’re in the conference.

    4) Pedagogy – Video conferencing vs. Web conferencing.

    This isn’t really pedagogy, but I’m using the term to describe the gulf between “on-line” conferencing and “video” conferencing today. We need video conferencing to support some of the really great tools that are available in “on-line”/web conferencing environments (chat, polls, forums, breakout rooms, etc.)

    And “on-line” environments need to support better and higher quality audio and video, more video and audio streams and group environments.

    So… What is the future of live Conferencing in education?

    Long term, I can foresee technology that supports the gamut of teachers and teaching styles, learners and learning styles and content types.

    Eventually we will have a conferencing protocol that will replace H.323, SIP, Skype and the rest. It will support multiple audio, text, video and content streams from each endpoint.

    We’ll see conference servers that support the new protocol (and that can transcode the old protocols) and support a variety of endpoints (analog, wireless, audio, digital, video, room, desktop, appliance, etc.)

    Care will have been given to the user interface, ease of use and to pedagogy. We’ll be able to have multiple PTZ cameras in the classroom, audio mics for teachers and students, content from multiple sources (computers, lab equipment, off-net, etc.) so that we don’t have to limit what we are sharing from the “classroom”. (Develop an open API so that people can develop content widgets.)

    Responsible learners will be given the flexibility to choose the streams that they want to view and hear. Learners who need more direction can be given fewer choices and more structure.

    And we’ll get all this in a low cost, easy to use, high bandwidth environment with good professional development.

    In the near term, we need:

    1) open standards and protocols
    2) conferencing that adapts to low and high bandwidth environments
    3) transport that traverses the net as easily as HTTP
    4) professional quality equipment for content providers, appliances for theatres, classrooms and desktops and software that runs on our computers (fixed and mobile) as endpoints.
    5) We need academics to study and solve the technology problems
    6) We need practitioners to study and solve the practice problems
    7) We need industry to build high quality and low cost solutions

    Products like Elluminate, Mirial and Vidyo are good “next steps”. There is still lots and lots of room for improvement and advancement.

    Cheers, -Craig-

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