Video Conference Experiences

During the pandemic I work from home, just like most office workers. To keep in touch we use video conference tools. But as we did not have anything set up before, we needed to find something that works sufficiently welt. Also with the GDPR it is not that easy to just take anything.

It turns out that none of the tools are quite satisfactory, there always is a bunch of friction.

The first that we tried is the DNF Conf system by the German Research Network. It uses WebRTC, is hosted in Germany and fulfills the GDPR requirements. Also it supports presenting PDF documents. Unfortunately it has been hopelessly overrun and it took a month before they ramped up resources and users went to other services such that it is mostly usable now. On my laptop is uses a lot of resources.

The second thing that we have tried is Jitsi Meet on their site and then also hosted an instance on our own. I like this the best so far. It also uses WebRTC but supports keyboard shortcuts for muting the microphone and even has a push-to-talk feature. But somehow the resource use is quite high and the members of our group with flaky internet connections would be cut of all the time.

For Android there is an app, that seems to work just fine also. I have used it occasionally and am quite happy with it.

Years ago one colleague already tried Zoom for a while. That seemed nice, but having to install some random RPM package from a vendor is not my favorite thing. They also have a version that works with WebRTC in the browser. But for some reason they don't support audio in Firefox! It is a mystery to me as all Jitsi Meet and DFN Conf work fine in Firefox. So I use it with Chromium, and there it also hogs resources. Perhaps my laptop just does not support the used video codecs on the GPU and therefore the CPU load is so high.

The desktop client is proprietary but seems to use a bit less resources. There are privacy concerns about it sending telemetry about the current window having focus and some other things. I just don't want to have that on my system.

The University of Bonn has bought licenses and somehow made some GDPR arrangements. Supposedly when used with their licenses it does not track so much data.

There is also Skype that we have used every now and then. Skype appears to be some kind of phoenix. It had a desktop client around 2008. That was snappy and had a relatively compact user interface. Then they did various redesigns, there was a great Qt client. But today it uses web technology (which is fancy for hogs RAM and CPU) and also the interface is do diluted that it takes up space but does not really work concisely. The Android app sucks, takes ages to load and does not always show notifications. On the desktop I cannot use it in Firefox but only Chromium (just like Zoom). And the new Skype client is just another Electron app. Why download yet another copy of the Chromium engine if I can just use it in Chromium?

Google Hangouts was used a while ago, but apparently Google got a bit confused over its Allo, Duo, Hangouts and now Meet products that we certainly are a bit lost.

Then there also is Blizz which requires an app when used on Android. But it does not really do full-screen and I just found it rather cumbersome.

WhatsApp also has video calls and conferences, but only with up to four or five people in total. Additionally I can only use it on my phone and need to stare at the small screen. I often use that with friends or people who have really bad audio in their laptop. But it is not as pleasant as something on the desktop.


In the end we just randomly take one of the conference tools and just switch to the next if the service is really bad on that given day. Fefe described that very well:

Das ist, wie sich Digitale Souveränität anfühlt, wenn man sie nicht hat.

Translated: “That's how digital sovereignty feels like when one does not have it.”

Well, let's see whether we are back in the offices or back with a working GDPR-compliant meeting solution. The Jitsi Meet instance and the DFN Conf are already good, we just need a few more computing resources such that they work reliably.