Your con-call invitation isn’t as enticing as you think

I enjoy talking shop, but not so much when I first need to call a toll-free number, punch in a four-to-six-digit code, press the pound key, speak my name after the beep and be dumped into a cybernetic void in which I must wait to hear the sound of another human voice.

Con-call invite from OutlookNo, I’m not a fan of conference calls. Part of that is a common rationale–they allow a PR minder to be on the line and make sure nobody says anything too compromising–but, really, most of it is the exasperating user experience.

That starts with the con-call invitation, which inexorably arrives on my Mac as a blank e-mail consisting only of a “Mail Attachment.ics” file. OS X’s Quick Look won’t reveal its contents, so I must open it in Calendar to see that it contains the number, con-call code and time that should have been in the e-mail itself.

Make me open another program to see what you’re talking about in your e-mail? No.

To judge from the headers of these messages, this is a Microsoft Outlook-transmitted social disease–sending a calendar invitation from inside that sprawling program must not offer the sender any hint of how it will be displayed to a recipient. In my case, it’s badly: Not only does Mail for OS X throw up its hands, the Gmail app for Android doesn’t even show this file.

(And yet Mail for iOS displays a nifty calendar widget for those invitation messages. Apple’s inability to keep its desktop mail client at feature parity with its mobile mail client is a subject for a future rant.)

After the aforementioned routine of punching in numbers and waiting for a response, I often face an extra challenge in con-calls with more than one executive, or in which the publicist and the executive are of the same gender: figuring out which of two or three white guys is speaking at any one time.

And have I mentioned that this is the tech business? There are good, Web-based conference systems that let you connect by clicking a link and then make it easy to tell who’s there and who’s talking. I’ve used UberConference and it was terrific; I hear great things about Speek but haven’t used it yet (note that a friend works at that D.C.-based startup); video chat through apps like Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Vidyo or Rabbit works too, as long as I tidy up the parts of my home office within camera view.

And yet when a company wants to talk up its technological prowess, we must jack into the AOL chat room of group voice communication. PR friends, if your client insists on that routine, can you at least do me a favor and dial my phone directly before patching me into the call?

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The video-calling mess

I’ll be on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show at 1 this afternoon to talk about Microsoft’s impending purchase of Skype for the you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me sum of $8.5 billion. Like, I suspect, all of you, I agree that the folks in Redmond are spending a ridiculous amount of money. But I also think that Microsoft–which can clearly afford this purchase–just might be able to knock some sense into Skype and possibly even the broader market for Internet video calling.

I start with the features I’d want to see in an ideal video-telephony system: It would work not just on computers running multiple operating systems but also such gadgets as smartphones, tablets and even HDTVs; its mobile version would support both WiFi and 3G; it would allow free device-to-device calls (I can live with charging for premium services like video-conferencing or international voice calls); most of my friends wouldn’t need to get a new account to use it.

The choices we have now don’t match up that ideal, and Skype is the leading offender. While it’s long been available for Mac, Windows and Linux machines (setting aside the much-disliked interface of its new Mac version) and can be used on a wide variety of HDTVs, its mobile support has been far spottier.

Skype works well on the iPhone over either 3G or WiFi, but there’s still no iPad-optimized version. That seems a little dumb at this point.

Skype’s Android support looks a lot dumber. Voice calling is was until recently limited to WiFi connections only (if you don’t didn’t have a Verizon Wireless phone) or and remains 3G only (if you do subscribe to VzW). That last limit comes courtesy of a weird little partnership Skype saw fit to ink with that carrier, combined with the Skype Android developers’ apparent inability to support two flavors of bandwidth in one app. Oh, and video calling on Android? That’s “coming soon”–but only to Verizon 4G phones.

Apple’s FaceTime seems to have been developed with the same ignorance of the term “network effect.” Notwithstanding Steve Jobs’ promises that Apple would make this an “open standard,” FaceTime remains confined to the iPhone, the iPad 2 and Macs–make that, recent Macs running an Intel processor.

Apple’s “open standard” pledge looks as devoid of meaning than the average campaign promise–almost as if Jobs just made that up on the spot.

Oh, and on mobile devices FaceTime only runs on WiFi–even though it will gladly use a 3G connection laundered through an iPhone’s Personal Hotspot feature.

Finally, there are Google’s intersecting Internet-telephony options. Gmail provides great video calling from within your browser (available for Windows, Mac and Linux). But on your phone, Google Voice doesn’t provide Internet-based calling–you still need to use your standard phone service to open the conversation. Google Talk video calling is confined to a handful of Android tablets. Although Google just announced that it will bring that feature to Android phones, it will require the 2.3 version of Android–which Google’s own stats show has only made it to 4 percent of Android devices.

There are other options, such as the Qik app bundled on some front-camera-enabled Android phones, but they all suffer from a far smaller installed base and the subsequent problem of getting relatives to sign up with yet another new video-calling service.

Microsoft has its share of issues, but it does seem to understand the relevance of market share. I would expect that the company that’s shipped capable, well-regarded versions of its Bing search app for the iPhone, the iPad and Android would at least try to get Skype to feature parity across those platforms–and, in the bargain, bring it to the Xbox. And if Apple and Google finally take notice and step up their own efforts, so much the better.

Besides, would you rather have seen Facebook buying Skype?

(Edited 5/26, 10:09 a.m. to correct an errant description of Skype’s Android client.)