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Linux and Video-conferencing: The Light's On But Nobody's Home

Monday January 15, 2001 06:21pm EST
These days, everyone wants to be Max Headroom. Check out some free alternatives to proprietary video conferencing tools, and find out which one fits your needs!
Recently, I found myself wishing I had Windows. Yes I, GNU/Zen Master, lover of all things GNU, who has not booted a Closed Source OS in many years, wanted Windows. Why? I was faced with two situations that indicated the need for video-conferencing over the Internet. First, I needed a Video-conferencing solution for the office, and second I wanted to video chat with some old friends. Both cases meant working with multiple platforms, I'm strictly Linux, the other side was, for the most part Windows. In both cases, I turned to the world of Free Software. Both times I was shocked at the lack of solutions. Let me share my pain with you.

In the world of Linux Video-conferencing, there are very few choices. There is QSeeMe. A Qt client that talks the older CU-SeeMe protocol (grayscale MJPEG, and H-263). This would have been a great product if I was looking for a tool in 1998, when the available version was released. Now, it's old and incompatible with most current tools.

Second in your choice of tools, might be VIC. VIC is a video conferencing application developed by the Network Research Group at Berkeley.

VIC is an excellent tool if you're looking for a video-conferencing solution for hackers, geeks and code monkeys. It is not a good solution if you're trying to conference in a Vice President of a Retail firm, or an old friend who can boot Windows but not accomplish much beyond that. VIC has two problems. First, the code is crufty. The code is very crufty. The code requires tweaking. I got the code compiled on Linux, only after realizing that 'something' was missing in all the tarballs offered, and getting the entire code base from cvs. Once it was compiled, it didn't work very well with Video4Linux (the current Linux Video API). On an older SUN box at the office, it compiled OK, and found the camera etc. Second problem, the code is in lots of little parts, the whiteboard is one part, audio is another, video, network based text editing, and the front-end are all separate as well. For me, this wasn't a big issue, it was simply a slight annoyance. For any non-technical people, it was an unscalable wall.

In my humble opinion, our best hope lies in the Open H.323 project. This is an Open Source implementation of the ITU teleconferencing standard (H.323). It's licensed under the MPL, so it can be included in any Open Source project. The code base is clean, the simple apps written for it compile easily and audio works OK. Video transmission support is still in development, but I'd guess they'll soon have it working well. The best thing about this project, is that its an implementation of a standard, the same standard used in- gasp- NetMeeting from Microsoft (especially with the upcoming T-120 support). Once Gnome, KDE, or some enterprising group of geeks gets a usable UI around this project we may actually be in business.

Video Teleconferencing could be a big win for Linux. A simple teleconferencing box, should not require expensive proprietary OS's. A well-powered system, video camera and a stable Free OS, could be tossed into every conference room and save bundles of cash. Besides, I want to chat with my friends from home!

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