Why is it so hard - technically - to have a realtime conversation with people all over the world?
"It's easy, just use Skype!". Not so fast. People need to install Skype - this is a task too hard for Grandma (unless you visit first and do it for her). And there's the whole contacts process. If you want to talk to me, we have to find each other and add contacts. After that, Skype will bother you when it's my birthday even though you only wanted to have one little chat. I could go on... 
"You're a geek, use IRC!". Of course, IRC is basically unusable by many people whom you'd like to talk to - some co-workers, your family, certainly not Grandma. At least there's no contacts to manage. But there's no audio/video, and you can't "drop in and out" of an ongoing conversation very smoothly - if you lose your connection to the chat, you lose the messages sent while you were gone .
"Use google chat/jabber!". Worst of both worlds. Low penetration, high complexity.
OK then, just use... hmm. Exactly.
Ad-hoc & Easy
There are two problems that current solutions have. One is that our conversations are ad-hoc, sometimes with people you've never met before and only have a fleeting connection to. Skype's contacts are not ad-hoc.
The other is that people need easy. Configuring IRC is hard. Heck, installing a damn program is hard for many people. Twitter and Facebook get close, but holding a decent conversation on Twitter is impossible, and Facebook is too autistic for people to use for ad-hoc communication. Besides, even signing up is often too hard. How many services do you not use because you would have needed to sign up first?
When I worked on Mahara, we used IRC. A few enthusiastic types joined us, but in large, IRC remains to this day inaccessable to many people. Not all users of Mahara are willing, or capable, of using it.
And when the Christchurch Earthquake hit this year, the response team that built eq.org.nz used Skype - which was by most accounts a terrible solution. Skype chat simply has too many bugs when you get to rooms of more than a few people - and we had over a hundred. Richard wrote a post-mortem that lays out the issues for communicating in a crisis.
So it's been my great privilege to have worked on a new service that addresses these problems. With Richard (a fantastic webapp developer who happens to be my cousin), we've been the tech team behind buzzumi, which just launched (he's lead, I'm wingman). It's a webapp that lets you create ad-hoc discussions - text chat, audio and video (A/V is completely optional). Your chat is accessible to anyone who can click on a link, without them logging in . It's simple, beautiful, and lightning fast.
The chat host can set the background, and it changes for everyone in the chat. There's no limit on participants, and up to six people can use A/V at once . It's great for team meetings, one on one discussions, and even webinars with hundreds of guests watching a broadcast. There's nothing to install (except flash), and no barrier to entry. You don't have to know the other participants, and when you're done, you can close the chat and never see them again.
Perhaps one of the coolest features is that you can make a chat have a fee for entry. buzzumi handles all of the payments for you. So you could hold a webinar on a topic you're an expert in, charge $50 to enter, and simply collect your profits when you're done (buzzumi takes a 10% cut).
Please Try It Out!
If you're in education, how could you use this for your school/university? If you're in disaster response, can we please ditch Skype for this? And if you know me from somewhere else, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it, technical or otherwise.
ps: Get Your Game On is still rolling, we are busy running much of the summer football around Wellington.
|||.. in this footnote :). Skype can suck bandwidth when you're not around, the new UI is crap, it promises encryption but has flaws including rumoured government backdoors, and it's now owned by Microsoft. Eew.|
|||Geeks have ways to get around this, through hax that allow them to use IRC on internet connections more reliable than their own. This is a workaround, not a true solution.|
|||To create chats, you do have to sign up - but your guests do not.|
|||Just quietly, the real limit is quite a bit higher, although we give no guarantees that it'll work properly beyond 6. I think the current record is 14. And note that this limit applies to people publishing their A/V, so you can have just one or two publishers with many more watching.|
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