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Like most people, I find myself using the same VoIP options everyone else is using. Thankfully, these days there are far more options available than what we might think. Today, I'll look at these options and also explore up-and-coming alternatives as well.
Coming from any other platforms, Linux VoIP clients often find themselves being compared to Skype. Foss advocates are usually quick to point out the flaws in trusting Skype with your voice calls, yet the fact is that this is what most people use.
Skype is a factor and ignoring it completely could mean that you're only able to speak with your geeky friends. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule in specific businesses, non profits and schools. But for home users and the self-employed, it's a Skype world. On today's modern distributions, Skype runs reliability. I know that once I install it on a new PC, it will run in the same way as it did on any other computer.
Additional features to consider include its ability to pass through firewalls without a second thought. Fact is it just works. You can also send instant messages, forward calls and use voice messaging. The latter two features will cost you money, however. Voice chatting, voice calls to Skype users and using video chat – these are free features.
Skype also offers Linux users the ability to have group voice calls, yet it lacks this ability with video calls in groups. Also screen sharing under Skype is hit and miss, depending on the version of the software you're using. If, for example, you're on a 16:9 screen but Skype decides to go with 4:3 aspect ratio instead, you're out of luck. Skype offers Linux users no way of adjusting this.
Without question, the best hope for a Skype-killer would be Jitsi. And as great as it is, sadly, it's still very much an application "in development." One might even suggest that it's cool if it works for you, but it's nowhere near ready for production at this time. All of that said, I firmly believe it will be Jitsi that provides the most reliable option 2 to 4 years from now.
What makes Jitsi nice is that it supports a multitude of protocols. This in itself isn't really new. After all, there are a number of protocols available out of the box. But what makes Jitsi so cool is that it offers some advanced VoIP features. The functionality that struck me is the HD video quality during my calls, and the security with encryption, by default. Bundle this with call transferring and call recording, it's easy to see why I'm so excited about the idea behind Jitsi in the long term.
So, what items need work? First, it needs to be stable to use. At this time, Jitsi has been known to crash. Also, it lacks group video calls on the free application. It seems the bulk of their recent development time has gone into a video bridge product, which is basically just a WebRTC provider.
I've been using Ekiga off and on for years. Out of all of the VoIP clients I've used, I've found Ekiga to be the most stable (not counting Skype). Sadly though, video chat with Ekiga is very hit and miss. With the software crashing and no video being shown, there are some bugs yet to be worked through. However, if being used strictly as a means of VoIP communication without video, Ekiga is fantastic. As a matter of fact, it supports a plethora of audio codecs ranging from SILK to CELT. Most people will likely want to go with Speex, though.
Features include much of the same found with Jitsi, but it's a better VoIP appliance with far greater development time. I also appreciate that you can use third party services to place calls or receive them, from regular telephones if you like.
At this point, Ekiga 4.0.x just isn't there for the casual user. To geeks, the ability to setup everything and configure the software is a huge plus. But to the casual user, it's way too complicated. I've personally seen evidence of this time after time.
What I'm excited about right now is the prospect of the developer recognizing 4.0's shortcomings and wanting to address them in an upcoming 5.0 release. To be clear, 4.0 is a solid VoIP soft-phone for audio communications only. Yet it's video aspects need work, as does it's UI.
In much the same grouping as Jitsi, Tox is proving to be a fantastic instant messaging client with VoIP functionality. Tox also puts encryption at the forefront of its feature set, which is important for those who take security seriously.
So here's the downside – it's in a state of suspension at the moment. According to their development blog, it's going to be awhile before we see Tox in a state that is usable by anyone. Despite these issues, I think it's worth checking out their nightly builds from time to time.
Perhaps one of the most exciting tools out there is WebRTC. Instead of needing to install software, waiting for updates and hoping it works, WebRTC is a web standard solution in place of services like Skype. The idea is that you can browse to services offering WebRTC chatrooms in which you can place a call to someone.
One of my favorites is OpenTokRTC. This free web service using WebRTC provides a chatroom you can share with others to join via a provided short link. It features audio/video, text chat, visual filters and if you install the Firefox/Chrome extension, you can also screen share. I'm also happy to report there is an Android app as well.
The key difference between OpenTokRTC and Skype is that you're lacking a friends list feature. OpenTokRTC doesn't have a list of contacts that are showing online. Instead, it depends on you to create a chatroom, then share the link to whomever you wish to chat with. There are advantages and disadvantages with this. The obvious advantage is you'll never lose your login again. The disadvantage is you must have a way to share the chatroom url once it's setup.
Another fantastic option is with Talky. It also uses WebRTC, but it includes screen sharing without any extra plugins for Firefox. Chrome, on the other hand, requires a plugin, which you'll be prompted for. Both OpenTokRTC and Talky are free to use and it should be noted that I've had the bulk of my success using Talky.
At the end of the day, Talky wins for privacy as you can lock the room and require a key. While this isn't foolproof, it's a darn good start considering this is a free service.
Linux VoIP Going Forward
More and more, I'm considering moving the bulk of my video chats to WebRTC solutions like Talky. Because they're stupid easy to use. Even if someone gets lost setting it up with their web cam, it's easy to talk them through it. I also love the fact that it doesn't require any software at all to use. Just run the website link and go.
If you need to make a desktop executable, just create one using your chrome browser. Create a chatroom. Then goto the Chrome settings, then More Tools, select Create Application Shortcut. From that point on, simply click the shortcut on your desktop or in your launch menu to run your chatroom.
Is it fair to say that WebRTC is the future of VoIP? My response is yes, but only as a replacement for soft-phones. Hardware-based VoIP solutions will continue to be a consideration for the enterprise space. However for those simply looking to setup a quick video chat while using VoIP, WebRTC is tough to beat.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.