In earlier posts in this blog, I’ve mentioned the potential of Skypecasts to bring in large groups of people dispersed around the world to exchange ideas, as well as its potential for ODR. I’ve also, in the past, tried to use Skypecasts to hook in younger members of the diaspora to talk about issues related to peace and conflict in Sri Lanka, based on the potential of Skypecasts to offer a free and easy way to tele-conference with large groups of people.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
A recent Skypecast which I set up and attempted to conduct as part of my interactions with students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in a class on Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) was an unmitigated disaster.
The call quality was wretched, users from all over the world joined in (there’s no way to configure a closed group), there were frequent bursts of static, the web interface to control conversations (mute controls) were sluggish at best, and dysfunctional most of the time, and as the convener, I had no control over the levels participation. The exercise lasted all of 3 minutes before we all just gave up.
Skypecasts in short, DO NOT WORK.
We resorted to Skype’s built in call conferencing, which worked well for a group that peaked at around 10 users. Call quality was markedly better and I can imagine that if all of us were on good broadband connections, the quality would have been even better.
It’s rather tragic that I honestly thought Skypecasts would be a catalyst for more democratic conversations across the globe. While Skype itself is a phenomenal programme, Skypecasts have a long way more to go before the technology can be taken seriously. One very strong recommendation would be to introduce a more structured method to conduct a Skypecast – so that it is not inundated with random users who just happen to join in with no understanding of the topic. Another would be the improve, drastically, the voice quality. It would also be interesting to offer a web based version of Skype – say Skype Light or SkypeWeb – that can be plugged into blogs & websites to facilitate voice calls to pre-designated Skype users (say the author of the blog) whenever he / she is online (without having to download and install Skype natively). I’ve always found the web based MSN Messenger very useful – it’s a cut down version from Live Messenger, but offers just enough functionality for me to carry out useful business when I am in an airport or fire-walled office that does not allow me to use the desktop version. I’d like to see the same happen with Skype.
The dramatic failure of Skypecasting held another lesson for me – that technology that looks good on paper really needs to be tested out before mission critical work. Skypecasts are in Beta testing, but in my opinion the technology is far too embryonic to be called Beta. It was my mistake to think that in its present form Skypecasts could be used for ODR and other purposes, though I’m still convinced that VoIP, largely driven by companies such as Skype and Vonage, is going to revolutionise telecoms as we have known it for the past couple of decades.