|"Hear me Out!" - The Current State of Mac VOIP|
June 21, 2006 | Dhruv Kalra
The waning months of 2005 and early 2006 saw Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) offerings for the Mac mature greatly. Mac users now have the choice of both TeamSpeak and Ventrilo clients, and as their respective development continues, more features are sure to come. After a long and tortuous wait, Mac gamers can hear each other once more. This article will briefly examine each of the VOIP clients available on the Mac, cataloging each one's key features and drawbacks in order to help readers make a more educated choice as to which one to use.
VOIP's origins can be loosely traced back to a program created by Resounding Technology called Roger Wilco. Using a copy of RW, one could run it in the background while playing one's favorite game, and using a basic channel/server implementation, fellow gamers could join the host's server and talk in real-time while gaming. Roger Wilco was groundbreaking for its time, and even more so in that a Mac version was available. Even though the Mac version never made it out of beta and development died after the rights to Roger Wilco were sold to GameSpy, Mac users had gotten their first taste of VOIP gaming. Unfortunately, it would be many years before they would be able to converse with their compatriots again.
In 2001, a company called TeamSpeak Systems burst forth onto the scene with TeamSpeak, a multi-user VOIP app aimed towards corporate users and gaming. The program immediately garnered rave reviews among its Windows user base, and soon Mac users were tentatively approaching the TeamSpeak development team about the possibility of a Mac version. The developers obliged and turned to Apple for support. Common knowledge has it said that Apple furnished the TeamSpeak devs with two Power Mac G4s for development purposes. This was taken as a sign of progress by the Mac hopefuls that development of a Mac client was underway. Then came silence. TeamSpeak systems finished their version 1.0 run of TeamSpeak and released version 2.0 of the software, again for Windows and Linux only. Repeated queries about the Mac version went largely unanswered, with occasional allusions being made to the far-off version 3.0. Indeed the developers' attitude seemed to be largely one of apathy towards the Mac for years.
Around the time TeamSpeak 2 made its debut, another small start-up calling itself Flagship Industries announced an app called Ventrilo. Ventrilo was another game-oriented VOIP program aimed to compete directly with TeamSpeak. As a result, Ventrilo effectively split the gaming VOIP market on the Windows platform. Mac users, seeing fresh hope, turned their VOIP desires to Flagship for a Mac version of Ventrilo. Flagship responded by releasing a Mac OS X version of its server software in late 2002, with assurances that a Mac client would follow soon after. However, much like TeamSpeak, very little was heard from Flagship for months. Soon months turned into years, and Mac gamers lost hope in ever seeing a full-featured VOIP solution for their beloved OS.
In the interim, Mac users were able to turn to alternatives such as Apple's own iChat, which gained audio chat support in 2002, followed by audio conferencing support a year later with the release of OS X 10.3 Panther. iChat was passable for one-on-one gaming, but clans largely found it unusable due to its simultaneous connection limitations. Today, iChat serves more of a telephone/videophone purpose and is often a last resort as a communications program for gaming.
In 2004, Skype Technologies, S.A. made available a Mac version of their Skype software. Skype was again meant to be a telephony app first and foremost, but its conferencing support made it work as a makeshift gaming tool. As Skype matured, its connection cap jumped from five to 50 simultaneous clients—suitable enough for gamers to use provided the bandwidth was sufficient. Similarly, the Gizmo Project also released software similar to Skype, running on SIP protocols and aimed at businesses using IP-based phones. Gizmo shared Skype's basic feature set and was thus utilized similalry by gamers.
Finally, in late 2005, rumblings of a breakthrough in Mac gaming VOIP began to surface. A mysterious developer known only as Savvy sent screenshots of a home-brewed app known as TeamSpeex to several Mac gaming sites. TeamSpeex was a reverse-engineered TeamSpeak client, utilizing open source audio codecs and offering compatibility with TeamSpeak's servers. After a rapid beta period, a first public release was made available in November. The TeamSpeak development team took the news with some alarm, and after a brief scare of potential legal action against TeamSpeex, it finally gained official endorsement, and is in its current state fully compatible with TeamSpeak's protocol. Since TeamSpeex's release, TeamSpeak Systems have previewed early screenshots of their own version 3.0 client in development for the Mac. Furthermore, around Christmas, Flagship followed TeamSpeex's lead by making available an early alpha of their own Mac Ventrilo client, using the same open-source Speex audio codecs. As of this writing, both clients have been updated numerous times, offering Universal binary support and greater protocol compatibility.
So where does this leave us? VOIP can be divided into two basic categories: Internet telephony software and software more geared towards gamers. Mac users, after years of being neglected in this area, now have access to multiple choices in both areas of VOIP software.