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A short history of Microsoft and IP based Video calling

August 24,2003

Microsoft over the years has produced an array of products to support IP based video and audio and calling. The number, diversity, in some cases similarity is sometimes mind numbing.

The granddaddy of them all is NetMeeting -- it was first introduced as an add on to Windows 95. Version 1.0 of NetMeeting had IP based audio calling capability and data sharing functions. The first video calling capability was introduced in 1998 as Version 2.x, a download for various Microsoft operating systems. NetMeeting 2.x was based on H.323 standards for audio/video connection and T.120 standards for data functions. Microsoft ran a number of public ILS servers to support call initiation.

Version 3.x was introduced in late 1999 with a whole new user interface and improved application sharing features. In December 1999 Microsoft provided for download what was essentially the last version of NetMeeting. It also discontinued its public ILS service (it was getting swamped with sexual related activity) and introduced a mechanism of calling based on the then new Msn Messenger instant messenger.

With Windows 2000 and Exchange 2000 Microsoft introduced a new mechanism for IP based video conferencing using the new (in Windows 2000) TAPI3 client and Exchange 2000 Conferencing Server. The TAPI3 client was only suitable for corporate networks (as its audio/video capability was based on multicast capability), but the server also supported NetMeeting as a client( so that non 2000 clients and clients outside of the multicast network could participate) and data conferencing was supported via the data capability of NetMeeting.

In 2000 Microsoft also upgraded MSN Messenger version 3.x to have PC to PC audio capability.

With the introduction of Windows XP in October 2001 another twist in the story begins -- things start to get really byzantine. XP supports and includes NetMeeting, the TAPI3 client like Windows 2000 but also includes Windows Messenger -- a parallel product to Msn Messenger but on XP only. It supports not only its own SIP based audio/video IP calling features, but has parallel data features to NetMeeting (in fact uses the modules from NetMeeting to perform the same functions). 

Messenger on XP though does not include by default a mechanism to initiate a NetMeeting call but buried deep in the bowels though a mechanism for allowing that command to exist XP is provided. All floats along for a while until MSN Messenger 5 is introduced -- it bizarrely runs on XP as well as other platforms and performs nearly identical functions to Windows Messenger (including the video calling functionality but on XP only) -- in fact both can run at the same time and compete for access at times.

Another bizarre twist happens with the introduction of MSN Messenger 6 -- it has the standard SIP based audio/video calling on XP and audio only on non XP platforms but also includes a "Webcam" feature that allows a type of video calling on all platforms. In addition Windows Messenger 5 has recently been introduced as well  -- it has no significant new features but works with the new Real Time server to allow corporate independence in running and managing a stand alone instant messenger service.

We now have on XP four audio/video calling mechanisms:

  • NetMeeting based on H.323 protocols
  • MSN/Windows Messenger based on SIP protocols
  • Webcam feature in Msn Messenger based on proprietary Logitech protocols
  • TAPI3 video conferencing based on a multicast H.323 strategy

All use NetMeeting data functions for data conferencing and MSN Messenger is dependent on Windows Messenger for audio/video and data functions. To muddy the waters even more earlier this year Microsoft purchased Placeware a real-time IP data conferencing service. It has not been fully digested at this point so it isn't clear what effect this acquisition is going to have on the whole situation.

Even worse all use different strategies for connecting to and from individuals behind routers and firewalls. NetMeeting requires H.323 gatekeeper/gateway functions in the NAT. Messenger audio/video calls require UPnP NAT traversal support in the NAT, the Webcam feature or MSN Messenger 6 uses a call reversal or server relay function, and the TAPI3 calling will not penetrate NATs because it is based on multicast.

Microsoft once replied to my question in a online chat. "Why was Netmeeting starting functionality not included in Windows Messenger on XP" -- the answer: "It would be too confusing.". Meanwhile they were working behind the scenes on the strategy that produced the current situation in this saga.

Clearly Microsoft is not a master at planning, clarity or lack of confusion at least when it comes to voice and video (or real time data collaboration) over IP.

It is unlikely that Microsoft will respond to my rant but I guess though if they do that we can depend on Microsoft's standard response to messes in its current products:

"Just wait for Longhorn -- it fixes everything."

For more information on NetMeeting and MSN/Windows Messenger see my Netmeeting information site: Meeting by Wire.

(addendum - May 20,2004) Over a long period I also cataloged the array of versions issued of both Messenger and NetMeeting.

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Last update: 29/06/2008; 11:43:34 PM.