Skype Technologies, the Luxemburg company famous for its free Internet telephone calls, last week launched an update that brings us closer to an elusive technological dream: the videophone.
The Skype 2.0 software offers the ability to see as well as hear computer-to-computer callers -- provided that both parties have webcams.
Video chats, as part of instant messaging services such as one sponsored by Yahoo Inc., have been around for years, but they offer only jerky, pixelated, postage-stamp-sized video that looks like it was transmitted from Jupiter during a sunspot eruption. They seem to be popular mostly among the cyber-sex crowd, but I'm not sure how those people can see anything well enough to get excited.
With the Skype 2.0 update, the picture is far clearer, larger and more stable. So much so that this may be the long-awaited application that brings video telephony to the masses, especially now that webcams can be bought for as little as $30.
It doesn't hurt that the software is free, like the computer-to-computer calls that allowed Skype to build a subscriber base of more than 60 million. (The company makes money by selling other services, including prepaid plans for computer-to-traditional telephone calls at low rates.)
Version 2.0 -- which so far is available only for Windows PCs -- retains the Skype desktop contact list that can be used to store information on people with whom you regularly Skype (like Google, the name has reached the status of a verb). If someone on your call list has the updated software and a webcam plugged in, a little video camera icon shows up beside his or her name. You double-click the name and, if your call is accepted, you'll see in a few seconds live video of the person you called, and that person will see you.
At first, the image, although clear, is a tad disappointing -- nearly as small as those on the instant message sites. But you can drag the image onto the desktop and enlarge it with no serious loss in visual fidelity. I found that I could expand the picture window to about 5 inches wide and 4 inches high for comfortable viewing.
The audio quality, always good on Skype, remains excellent -- sometimes better than even on a land-line phone.
Because I was using a prerelease version of the software (the update was still officially under wraps during testing), I could use it to speak only to folks connected in some way with Skype. But we video-chatted from and to various locales, including offices, living rooms and bedrooms. The synchronizations of voice and lip movements were quite good -- that's usually a big problem on the video instant message systems.
After several minutes of testing and talking about the system, we invariably fell into easy conversation about family members (photos were held up to the cameras), pets (dogs and cats were held up to the cameras, amid some protest) and hobbies.
For some reason, adding video brings a bit more humanity into a conversation, even if it's basically a business call. For one thing, you have to be on better behavior; it's probably harder to make a cutting remark if you are face to face.
Nevertheless, the image is hardly perfect, even when both parties are using fast Internet connections. There is a general haziness to the images, and the picture quality washes if the chatter is in low light. Movement causes some pixelation.
Indeed, the image quality is not quite as good as that achieved by the iChatAV system that Apple Computer Inc. debuted in 2003. But iChatAV was a marginal development because it works only on Macintosh machines. That means it can be enjoyed by a relatively small number of computer users.
A spokeswoman for Skype said the company hoped that it could eventually offer its updated software in a cross-platform version to allow video conversations between Mac and PC users.
There have been other attempts at boosting the quality of video communication. Last month, Sony Corp. introduced its Instant Video Everywhere software, which improved on the status quo but not enough to be notable.
The significance of Skype 2.0 is not only that it's the first quality video communication regimen for consumer PCs, but also that the company's huge subscriber base makes it more likely to gain wide acceptance. If it catches on, it might even bring a tad more civility to conversation, especially on the Internet, where acid messages are far too common.
But get ready for the little downsides too. The day I tried the software, I checked myself in the mirror before every video call. Wouldn't you just know it would be a bad hair day?
\o7David Colker can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.