Skype just released the latest beta version of its Skype 5 Windows client — which along with a more streamlined interface and the usual bug fixes, adds one major new feature: the ability to video chat with up to 10 people.
The internet calling service has made major leaps in its video calling technology over the past few months. At the beginning of the year, video chats were limited to two people — the same as when the service launched in 2003. In May, it released a Windows beta client that supported five-person video chat, which I argued would help make group video chat the next killer webcam feature.
Competing video chat services like Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, and Google’s Gmail video chat only allow for two-person conferences. Apple’s iChat added support for four-person video chat in 2004, but since it’s restricted to Mac users, it hasn’t had much impact on the video chat market.
Skype has said it plans to charge for group video chat eventually (along with other new features), but it’s free for the moment. Its Mac client will be updated to support the feature by the end of year.
As I wrote previously: While one-on-one video chat has been available to consumers since the late nineties, it took the proliferation of broadband internet access, faster computer speeds, and cheap webcam availability over the past decade to popularize it. Now webcams are integrated into practically every laptop (including bargain-priced netbooks), and we’re seeing forward-facing cameras in the iPhone 4, Evo 4G, and many other upcoming smartphones. (I argued previously that the iPhone 4 will usher in a new wave of mobile video conferencing.)
Now with 10-person video chat, Skype brings us one step closer to something that used to be relegated to science fiction.