When I was growing up in a large family, the highest form of communication in our house was “milling around” or just “milling.” Milling was a completely informal, relaxing way to chat with friends and family. You would sit on the couch in the living room and just talk. Some people would share funny stories about past adventures, and others would lead the conversation in highly vocal debates about sports, politics or religion. Some would take the floor and act out their stories; others would just sit and take it all in, soaking up the family lore or bonding with friends. Whatever the topic, there were lots of laughs, animated show-boating, and voices competing to be heard. But most of all, the compelling thing about milling was that you were drawn in to a world where you were completely present to the others around you—often, we started a night milling before a planned night out on the town never to leave our couches. In fact, sometimes it was a conscious decision that we were having way more fun milling and decided to abandon our plans.
The key ingredients of milling that to this day make it the highest form of communication in my mind include:
• Multi-party: the discussion was communal because everyone in the room could chime in at any moment. This was crucial for a sense of shared bonding.
• Visual: key to the ability to tell or understand a story was being able to be seen or see the speaker. If you were standing in another room, say the kitchen, you might hear the same story but risked completely missing the point if you did not see the speaker (who might be employing sarcasm or irony for example).
• Contextual: the setting of the room was key to the tone and direction of the dialogue. If it was a sunny day outside, that would affect the tenor of the chat. If there was a blazing fire in the fireplace amidst a dark room, that might drive a more intimate or confessional type story-telling.
• Anecdotal: similar to above, the surroundings of a room might trigger a thought or change the direction of the careening conversation—this was part of the charm.
• Physical: the ability to lock onto items in the room and use them as props in stories or projectiles in teasing milling members was important.
• Immediate: you never knew when a milling session would break out. Sometimes it was when you least expected it. It might start as just two people sharing their plans for the day, then other family members might enter the room or friends come over and, voila, hours of milling would be enjoyed by all.
So what does this have to do with my review of Vidtel’s video phone service
? Everything! Because for the first time in my adult life I feel like I may have recaptured a spark of what I loved best about milling through a long-distance communications product. And after many years in the telecommunications industry, I finally feel like a have a full grasp of the point behind video telephony.
So let’s cover the major parts of my review before I go back to the larger point. In short, the product is great. I love it. The service actually brought a smile to my face and a joy that few tech products do. And this from a wizened and hardened technology professional.
• Easy to set up. Just plug it into the Ethernet and power and it installs itself in a minute or two.
• Easy to use. It’s a normal phone too, so you can make calls as normal and video calls to other users (and I think they have plans to support Skype at some point too).
• Cheap. Vidtel has plans starting at $14.95 ($29.95 for unlimited minutes). Frankly I don’t know why you would choose Vonage over a Vidtel service that also gives you unlimited calling and a great video calling service.
• The entire video screen is adjustable, which is important when you want to pan a room, position for optimal viewing, or show more (or less) of yourself or your environment. You can also turn the screen to dark or fold it down flat over the number pad.
• There are three modes for the screen: 1) the other party; 2) you (so you can adjust the screen); or 3) the other party with you in a small box on the upper left (so you can make sure you stay within view)
• Video quality was good, especially between broadband or corporate Internet users. Calling to Nana’s DSL line was only a bit more choppy and pixilated, but not very noticeable.
• Voice quality was good. I was surprised by this. The speakerphone sounded great and I could pick up full ambient sound from the room on the other end (crucial to catch the antics of kids in the background).
• Normal telephone features caller ID, 3-way dialing and all the other features you would expect are included.
• Special features like video voicemail (yup, leave a video message, as animated as you want to make it) and simultaneous ringing (ring your cell phone at the same time if you are away from home so you never miss a call) are neat.
• Ability to turn off video part of the call at any time.
• The Grandstream phone I had was durable and attractive.
• The speakerphone hang-up button on my Grandstream phone (note: Vidtel has plans to support several different models) was positioned towards the front of the phone, making it to easy for my kids to accidentally hang up the call (especially when trying to “touch” Daddy through the phone).
• The phone book button on the phone takes you to the phone book rather than to a call log to allow you to easily return calls past on call history (ones received or dialed). I think many people today use their call history more than directories (which take time to manually build). It took me a while to figure out how to get to the call history through the menu (by hitting the “back” link to the main menu). Of course this is part of the learning curve and since this is a software feature Vidtel could easily update this part of the navigation.
• On a few calls to people using cell phones, the voice quality was only average, and in one case there was a soft echo on the phone. This could be an artifact of VoIP to cell phone calling, or just a bad mobile connection. Not sure.
• Twice during my trial the Vidtel phone seemed to lose its connection to the Vidtel server, a minor inconvenience since both times the problem was remedied by a 10 second reboot.
I have been using the product for about 6 months (I believe that to give an honest review you really need to get beyond the joy or frustration of the initial setup and usage experience). I had been using it mostly to chat with professional associates also in the review program and on occasion so Nana could see the grandkids (she has the other review unit). But it was not until my wife and kids’ three-week trip to see Nana that I found myself using it every day. I stayed behind to focus on getting work done without distractions but didn’t realize how tough it would be not seeing my family for so long.
Vidtel was a life-saver. Now I was actually milling with my wife and kids. Rather than the perfunctory check-in phone calls that I would normally have as a road warrior, where the kids would ask over and over “Daddy, when are you coming home?”, now I felt like I could actually spend time with them and fill that void.
Much to the chagrin of my wife trying to put the kids to bed for a late bed-time, our first Vidtel chat lasted well over an hour. I chatted with each of them. Then, they all sat around while we read stories and said prayers. Then we goofed off for a bit. I showed the kids some pictures and items I had on my desk (see rules of milling above), and then we pretended to try to hug and kiss each other through the phone. Some kids made funny faces. Some fought to get closer to the camera. In the background I could see Caroline our three year old princess dancing around. Nana came into view and I said hi. I could have stayed there all night interacting, or just listening to the conversation. I could have milled forever, but for the fact that it was late and the kids had to go to bed.
The next night more of the same. I could tell that Jack, our mono-syllabic seven year-old, was sad by the look on his face. So I talked to him alone and had him smiling in no time. Michael, our 18 month old baby, sat on Mommy’s lap and squealed with delight, of course doing his best to grab the phone or throw things at it (the Grandstream phone we had as part of the Vidtel service proved very durable). Casey, our eight year-old, told her stories of swimming lessons with the aplomb of a teenager, of course giving the rundown of each of the other kids’ transgressions of the day. Aidan took his turn, while Caroline the princess danced in the background.
Later, when the kids had gone to bed, Mommy and I had our own little chat. She tried to act out the story of how a contractor came to install Nana’s new drier that day, but she is one of the those people who laughs so uncontrollably while telling a story she finds funny that you only catch every third intelligible word, and that alone has you belly-aching too.
Vidtel Versus Skype
So you ask, how does this all compare to Skype? Well, I still use Skype for business IM, some impromptu laptop-based calls, and an occasional video call with a colleague. But I mostly use Skype for IM and for up to 24-party voice conference calls for work (free way to run a call if everyone is on Skype). I hardly ever use Skype for personal calls. And quite frankly I think Skype video calling is less compelling in the professional world, where people are less likely to want to share that level of personal intimacy with business associates (or have to put a headset on). For the average consumer who does not live on their computers, Skype really is not an option for video calling. That is why I believe Vidtel is the first real consumer-friendly video calling service. You can use it as a normal phone, or you can “mill” with friends or family in a way where they feel truly present to you. And since Vidtel is easy to install and use, inexpensive, and a replacement for a traditional landline service, it fills all of the requirements for milling (except maybe launching projectiles at a sibling when they are telling a story).
As I have said before
, Vidtel has put together the right combination of price, simplicity, quality, and unexpected joy in a product and service that really makes it a game changer. If you want to experience a richer, more interactive communications experience with friends and loved ones, than Vidtel just might be what you have been waiting for.