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Diverse Platforms

As of mid-2004, our company is a Windows and Mac shop. Most employees use relatively modern laptops or notebooks running Windows XP; some are using Home, others Professional. The others use high-powered PowerMac systems running Mac OS X 10.3 ("Panther"); those are for magazine layout and production. A few employees, including yours truly, have both Macs and PCs.

Connectivity is a mixed bag. The Long Island office is hooked up the Internet using a business-grade cable modem. Behind the modem is a SnapGear SOHO firewall and network-address-translation box, which connected to a Fast Ethernet switch. All New York employees are on a wired network.

My office is California is similar, running off a business-grade cable connected protected by a SonicWall firewall/NAT appliance. That office, which all contains our company Web servers and other systems, uses both Gigabit Ethernet wired and 802.11g wireless LAN gear behind the firewall.

The other telecommuters run ADSL connections. One uses a wireless router; the others connect their laptops directly to the DSL modem. All use software firewalls on their computers. Several of the newer laptops, by the way, have built-in WiFi transceivers; we have several monthly subscriptions for T-Mobile Internet hot spots. One field reporter does a lot of writing from her nearby Starbucks, preferring it to her cramped apartment.

As mentioned, two of us have Apple iSight cameras; those are excellent high-bandwidth cameras that connect to the Mac using FireWire. For the Windows boxes, I chose the Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000, based on several personal recommendations. I can't complain about the price: about $80. The camera hooks up to Windows PCs using a USB cable. We call those cameras "eyeballs," by the way.

On the software side, all of the Windows users involved in video conferencing have upgraded to the latest version of AOL Instant Messenger, currently 5.5.3959. The Macs run the iChat application included with Mac OS X 10.3. As best I can tell, all the hardware and software are working correctly. But it's hard to be sure.

Up and Running. Or Not.

To make a long story short: Some video AIM connections work all the time, some work sometimes, and some we can't get to work at all. It would be easy to blame the Internet for the problems, but I'm not prepared to do so. I think the challenges lie in the software stack that AIM uses, in the complexity of the video conferencing standards, and on the phase of the moon.

Using the software itself is simplicity. Check in AIM to see if the colleague is online. If you're using a Mac, there will be a video-camera icon next to his name if he has video capability; click it to initiate a connection. From Windows, select the name from the buddy list, select People drop-down menu, then choose "Open video...." That signals the recipient that you're trying to initiate the connection; they need to click a dialog box to accept it. Sometimes, the video window opens, and you're able to see each other and chat. More often than not, with some people, an error message occurs, usually blaming a firewall configuration problem.

Is it a firewall problem? That depends. Within my office, I have the Mac with the iSight and a Windows machine with an eyeball. Both are on the same Gigabit Ethernet LAN, with no firewall between them. Sometimes they can conference with each other, and sometimes they give a firewall error message! Go figure!

I have the same challenge when working with telecommuting employees—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Closing and restarting AIM sometimes clears the problem. Sometimes it doesn't. To be honest, I haven't been able to find a pattern or resolve the issue, other than trying and trying until it works, or until someone gives up. More often, the latter situation occurs; peoples' patience with the video is weaning thin. But amazing, there are some employee-to-employee combinations that (nearly) always work. Again, go figure.

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