30 Mar 2009

Skype, Logitech and the cost of ownership of Windows

I'm not much of a phone person, preferring email for most business and personal purposes, so had never got around to looking at internet telephony. But I have been wanting to try video chat with family back in the U.K., and the reason that gave me the push to actually do something about it was wanting to encourage my daughters to speak more English (for instance a weekly video call with Grannie). Oh, and a niece I have only seen in photos.

I'm on Linux, my brother is on Mac, and my Mum would be on Windows, and I assumed Linux would be the hardest of those to satisfy. Skype was the first name I recognized in my search, so I went for that! Installation went smoothly, and it auto-detected my web cam. The first time I started it it prompted me to create a user. Easy, simple. Impressed.

I emailed my brother and he also got setup quickly. It took us a few days to find a time when we were both around to try it, but when we did it worked first time. Impressed. And my family got to meet my new niece. I say "meet", because it really felt like it. Okay, I didn't get a cuddle, didn't get to smell the dirty nappy, and didn't get the dribble down the front of my t-shirt. But there was interaction, and there is nothing like seeing a baby's smile happen live!

So, then I set it up on the Windows XP notebook in our lounge. Not easy. Not impressed. The hard part was getting the Logitech webcam installed. I plugged it in. It popped up a box saying unknown USB device, and offered to search for a driver for me. A few long minutes later it gives up. Having thrown out the packaging a long time ago, I tried the Logitech web site. It wants to know what device I have. On the device it says "Logitech" and no other information at all! On the cable is a label with "M/N" (model number??), "P/N" (part number??) and "PID" (???). No luck with any of those.

So, here is what I did. I plugged the webcam back in Linux! The log then told me it is a "Logicool" camera. Still no model number, but it turned out that was enough information to find the correct driver. I then got a 50Mb "driver" to download. I ran it and without asking any questions it chugged away for a couple of minutes, then said it needed to reboot. Ok. After a reboot it opens up and asks if I want to install just the driver or the Logitech software too. Sadly those were the only two choices. The button labelled "Please explain to me what you've been doing for the past 10 minutes and why I had to reboot the machine when you haven't even installed a driver yet you moronic piece of time-wasting software" was missing.

For contrast, as long as you have a 2.6 kernel (i.e. any linux distro from the last 2-3 years ago), the webcam was genuine plug-n-play, a 1 minute install, rather than the above 45-minute marathon.

Anyway, finally the webcam installs. Skype install and setup was reasonably straightforward - not quite as easy as on linux as there are a lot more options compared to the clean linux version. Also when adding a new contact you are forced to send them a text message. Or I misunderstood the over-complex user interface. But, anyway, it works.

For both ease of use and power Linux caught up with Windows about two years ago (as a desktop machine; it has been superior as a server machine, in my opinion, since about 1998.) But it seems the trend has continued and Linux is now far superior. I remember Microsoft ads trying to claim that even though Linux was free its Total Cost Of Ownership was much higher than Windows. As it turns out Windows Total Cost Of Ownership is about 12 times higher: 60 minutes to install a web cam and Skype, compared to 5 minutes on Linux.

In particular if you've bought a simple Logitech webcam and discovered you are running Windows, and you only use Windows for email, browsing the web, office applications, Skype, photos, etc., etc. then I suggest you wipe your disk and install Ubuntu Linux, rather than try to install the Logitech drivers. It is going to be easier, and you also get a better and more secure operating system to boot.

By the way, the video on Windows is much jerkier, and the camera takes five seconds longer to start, compared to Linux, but my desktop machine is more powerful than the notebook. So that may just be a hardware difference rather than the combined incompetence of Microsoft and Logitech.

Anyway back to the main point: video conferencing actually works! And I can recommend Skype as the platform to choose.