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Vintage Video Conferencing

1st January 2016

As a result of my family’s move from the east-coast of Canada, to the west-coast, I wound up in public school in Victoria, BC. The Victoria school board was Mac-centric. At home, I was playing with OS/2, various versions of DOS, and GNU/Linux, but at school all we had were Macs.

In our school, we had a program for video-conferencing called CU-SeeMe. I’m not convinced that actual work or learning was done by students using this software, but it provided video conferencing between schools across Canada. The internet connections were often dial-up, but sometimes ISDN1 if you were lucky. We got excellent sound and often reasonable video over these connections.

It was fairly easy to have a video call with someone in another location. Much like the telephony software I talked about, you would simply punch in the IP address of the person on the other end, and pretty soon you could see their smiling face.

There was a conference call option that required a server component to be installed somewhere that all of the participants would connect to. Our school board had this server software. Teachers from my school in British Columbia had meetings with teachers from other schools all around Canada. The server software was simple, it just took the incoming video and audio and sent it out to other participants of the call.

I’m sure if I found two Macs of the appropriate vintage with the CU-SeeMe software installed, we could have a video call today. The protocols haven’t changed, and the software has no third party requirements. Undoubtedly the experience would be much better because the internet connections are so much faster. I’m sure that if I had several Macs of the appropriate vintage, with one running the CU-SeeMe server software, I would be able to have a full-on video conference like it was 1995 all over again.

Today, video calls and conferences are fairly commonplace. We use skype, Hangouts, and various other tools sometimes on a daily basis. Many VOIP services have video conferencing built in.

As with the telephony software, though, there’s a lot more complexity involved these days. There are middle-man services that we must route our calls between. Not because it’s technically required: CU-SeeMe proved this in when Hammer Pants were still fashionable. The middle-man services aren’t required for any of the features users want, they simply exist so that the middle-men can extract money from users.

Of course, this added complexity comes with many problems. In technical circles, we call this kind of problem a single point of failure. By having a required middle-man, what happens when the middle-man experiences a failure? It’s experienced by all of the users whose software needlessly depends on the middle-man. Technically, the software would still work, if it weren’t built to depend on the middle-man.

This is obvious when Skype’s servers experience issues. No calls can be made between anyone running the Skype software. Technically, there’s no reason Skype needs to depend on the middle-man, it was built that way deliberately. If Skype, the company, stopped existing tomorrow, the software on both ends would be completely useless2.

Why do Skype, Google, and other providers want to route all of our calls through their centralized services? We, as users, get nothing by routing all of our traffic through someone else’s computer3 for most of these services. The software provider may get some benefits from easier distribution if more features are moved to the server. But users only get less reliability, a single point of failure, and all of our calls owned by a third party.

  1. ISDN was, at best, 128kbps. A very slow modern internet connection is over ten times faster than this. Most people in the developed world have access to connections that are hundreds or even thousands of times faster. 

  2. Make no mistake, everything you love involving a computer today will cease to exist within your lifetime. 

  3. I don’t know where the original came from, but I’m quite fond of this quote: “There is no cloud, it’s just someone else’s computer.”