Like everyone in the world working from home during the pandemic, we saw a sudden switch to intensive use of video conferencing for the past eight weeks.
Daily stand-ups with clients, coffee chats with colleagues, meetings, on and on, up to the point you feel you’re only in video calls the entire day. It was such a sudden increase that it now feels suddenly odd to have an actual phone call, without video.

I want to jot down some of our experiences with various video conferencing tools these past weeks, and how it compares to ‘before’. It’s a good thing meanwhile to keep in mind that phones, sms, mail etc also still exist.

One of the first things that stood out for my company at the start of the lock down was that while we did have regular video conferences previously, we didn’t host them ourselves. It was mostly at the invitation of clients or others, using their solutions such as Webex, and Skype for business. Amongst ourselves we used Skype, but usually made regular phone calls. Within my World Bank projects we used Skype as well.

Our cloud tool, NextCloud offers NextCloud Talk, supported with a STUN and a TURN server. We tested this and it works reasonably well for up to 4 people. Our first experiences were however not convincing enough to want to use it for larger groups or as a default for client interaction. We did however use it with one client reliably with 3 to 4 people.

Next to our existing NextCloud we added Zoom, with 4 hosts. Zoom works very well, also with a few dozen participants, and we have been using it for our own all-hands meetings, weekly check-ins and daily coffee times. We also used Zoom for an online workshop, including the use of break-out rooms and that worked very well. Zoom however has been the subject of a lot of privacy and data security criticism, which have only in part been addressed. Various clients of ours do not allow Zoom. Specifically the use of the Zoom client is seen as problematic, some do allow their people participating in a Zoom call through their browser.

Meanwhile our clients operating within the Microsoft silo speeded up their switch to Microsoft Teams, which meant that our interaction with them takes place through Teams’ video conferencing. This for us reduced the need for being the host of a range of meetings, and our need for Zoom.

Still we wanted another video conferencing option for ourselves, that supports larger groups, and is within our own scope of control. We arranged for a managed Jitsi server for our company’s use. This at first glance looked like it might be an expensive solution (as it meant a bespoke service as no regular hosting offers were to be found), but in the end our existing cloud hoster provided us with our own Jitsi server geared to use for larger groups against low costs. Our experiences with Jitsi are somewhat mixed. It works best if everyone is on Chrome browsers, but that in itself is not really desirable nor even easy to ask of every participant. Jitsi does not allow for scheduling or planning a call, as you can only login as a host after starting a call. Jitsi also does not support break out rooms, nor is it on the current development agenda it seems. We’ve used Jitsi reliably in various settings, both with others and amongst ourselves, including a group of 8 people from different organisations. In that case being able to offer to use Jitsi on our own server made the call possible in the first place, as several participants were adamant about not wanting to use other tools such as Zoom.

So the current reality is that we use Nextcloud Talk, Jitsi, Teams, Zoom all in parallel, depending on context and participants, while we also still participate in Hangouts, Webex and Skype for Business meetings. The only thing that has seen a reduction of use is regular phone calls, which upon reflection is an odd effect, as no-one set out to replace or try to improve upon those. Maybe it’s because all the video conferencing tools bring the conversations into the device you have in front of you working from home all day anyway: your computer screen.

The acquisition by Microsoft of Skype hasn’t worked out well for the product itself, judging by the level of sighs and complaints I hear whenever Skype is mentioned. So I was glad when longtime blogging connection Phil Wolff pointed me to Appear.in as an alternative. He said he’d been using it for a year or so, as an alternative to Skype.

Appear.in seems very easy to use, and no account is needed. Simply create a sharable link, and send the link to your conversation partners yourself, and you’re all set to talk with up to 4 people. The paid version allows up to 12 people in one call. I intend to use this more from now on.

Appear.in is a Norwegian company started in 2013 as an intern project at Telenor, which is still a minority shareholder, according to Techcrunch’s Crunchbase.