5 reasons we still need Whisper

Now that Vivox voice is available for free to small grids and to non-profit grids, there’s going to be less pressure on the OpenSim developers to finish integrating Whisper voice.

And that’s a shame, since only two major issues need work. One is that Whisper isn’t currently integrated into existing viewers — users must manually install it, and then uninstall it when they go to a Vivox-enabled grid. There’s no automatic switching, depending on which voice system a region is using. The second problem is that Whisper doesn’t cut off people automatically when they leave a region — allowing folks to hear what their friends say about them behind their backs. This is a potential drama minefield — but also a security issue for corporate users.

OpenSim users have been waiting for these fixes for over a year. And waiting impatiently — Whisper sounds as good as Vivox does, shows speaker indications, and can support directionality and all the other goodies that folks need. Unlike Freeswitch, it doesn’t cut in and out and sound fuzzy.

August 2010 meeting of Hypergrid Entrepreneurs Group on OSGrid, using the Whisper client. The sound quality was great -- but Whisper was difficult for users to set up.

Now those users can just set up Vivox and stop bugging developers to get this done. On my company grid, for example, we’ve been trying to get Whisper to work for over a year. Now that we have Vivox in place we are very happy. Ecstatic, even. And we’re no longer bugging our hosting company to get Whisper working. We have everything we need, it works great, and we’re very greatful to Vivox for offering us the service at a price we can afford — namely, free.

And since developers have a lot more pressing issues to deal with, Whisper for OpenSim might just fade away.

That would be too bad. Here are some reasons why.

1. Vivox might start charging

Vivox is a business. That means that they will, at some point, charge for their services. Now, they might never charge small grids and non-profits. They might only start charging once concurrency gets over a certain number of users — and charge a reasonable price.

Or they could change their minds and charge a lot. Some grids are hedging against this uncertainly by signing commercial agreements specifying rates for a certain period of time.

You don’t want to set rates too far in the future, however, since prices could also drop — after all, prices are dropping everyone around the Internet as computing power and bandwidth keeps getting cheaper.

2. You can run Whisper on your own servers

If your users are discussing highly confidential stuff — patient medical records, for example — you might not want to have the conversations leave your premises.

Vivox voice is hosted on their servers in Boston. Conversations flow from the users, to Boston, and then to the other participants in the conversation. This makes it very convenient for folks who don’t want to mess around with running their own voice servers, which can quickly get bogged down by traffic.

But many organizations might be willing to take on that job, such as schools, corporations, and government agencies.

Whisper allows you to run voice on your own servers  — the server side of the software is called “Mumble.” If your grid is behind a firewall, nothing will leave the premises.

This is also useful for paranoid governments — or for paranoid individuals. You know who you are.

3. You can modify Whisper

Since the code — both for the Mumble server and the Whisper client — is open source, folks can modify it to suit their needs. Both pieces of software are GPL licensed, so can be easily integrated with the GPL-licensed third party Second Life and OpenSim viewers.

Folks can also modify them for internal use and keep modifications proprietary, or modify them for public use — in which case they have to distribute the modifications as open source as well.

4. It will keep Vivox reasonably priced

As long as Vivox is the only game in town, they can charge whatever they like. It’s great that they’re now offering the service for free — I applaud what they’re doing, and am enjoying my Vivox voice immensely.

But the fact that there is a free alternative can help keep Vivox free for small and non-profit users, and reasonably priced for mid-sized grids.

5. It will help grow OpenSim

Would your school or company or government agency or non-profit organization invest a lot of money in a virtual world if there was only one service provider for a key function?

Given how quickly companies can go out of business — or radically change their terms of service — it’s a difficult risk to justify, especially if large amounts of money are involved.

OpenSim services are currently available from multiple providers, as well as as a free download, so the risk of running the server software itself is relatively low. If one hosting provider goes out of business or changes its prices, there are plenty of others, or you can just run it on your own.

With an open source voice alternative, the same will be true for the voice functionality. Organizations that depend on voice can comfortably sign up for Vivox, say, knowing that if the terms change they can switch to Whisper and either run it themselves or have their hosting company do it for them.

Maria Korolov