Why is webcam technology still so hard?

One reason that Meridith Levinson and I were so anxious to review the Viewsonic monitor a while back was that we wanted a simple way to collaborate. The system had its webcam integrated with the monitor and sound system, much like the iMac does, so we were enthusiastic about the possibilities.

However, as the review showed, the results were disappointing. On the other hand, I'm not sure how much we should blame Viewsonic, or at least I'm not sure that Viewsonic is exceptional in its failure to deliver a comfortable user experience for the not-too-technical. From everything I can gather -- I'm primarily a Mac user -- any webcam installation on Windows is an exercise in frustration. The moment you say, "I'm going to install a webcam," you have entered a maze of dark, twisty device drivers, all different.

I hadn't expected to encounter these problems. I thought this would be a nice, easy single-afternoon review, in which I spent less time doing installation and configuration than dragging the computer out of the box (not to mention playing kitty games with the twist ties, which can take a lot more time). Not to be a Mac fanatic about this topic, but on my iMac the iSight just works. Based on its no-user-intervention-required integration with iChat and other tools, I expected that the Windows universe would be reasonably similar. It sure isn't.

For heaven's sake, why? Why hasn't this problem been solved? It's 2007. Online webcams have been around since the early 90s, at least; I reviewed one for Computer Shopper in 1993 (wherein I held up the same cat for the screen shot... some things never change).

Ordinarily I'd end my note with some set of reasonable explanations and mutter about the most likely possibility. But I'm stumped. Can anybody explain why webcams are still such a nest of arcane lore, requiring eyes of newt, the dark of the moon, and the blood of virgins to get working correctly?—Esther


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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