Big Blue Button

I was invited to demo Mallard at a DITA Help Subcommittee meeting. They hold their meetings with GoToMeeting, a conferencing and desktop-sharing tool. Unfortunately, GoToMeeting only supports Windows and Mac. That’s a problem for me, because the only thing on my desk is Fedora. I searched a bit and stumbled across BigBlueButton, an open source system with all the bells and whistles of the proprietary ones. The DITA folks were nice enough to use BigBlueButton to talk to me.

There are some quirks. Sometimes the audio is choppy or it drops out. People said my desktop was hard to read unless I massively upped the font size. Some of these issues may just be because we used the demo server, which apparently doesn’t have the best deployment. The BigBlueButton developers, however, were extremely helpful. And they’re actively working on the audio issues.

So even with the quirks, and even though I had to install Flash, using BigBlueButton was a really nice experience. It’s left me wanting something more whenever I have to do IRC meetings. IRC meetings are horribly low-bandwidth, especially for collaborative planning. If I could actually talk to people, and show them what Yelp is doing on my desktop, I think we could be a lot more productive. It’s not quite as good as face time, but it’s a lot better than IRC.

I wonder how we could make awesome collaborative tools like this available to our teams in Gnome. Could we run a BigBlueButton server? Is Flash a non-starter for that? What can Empathy do for us? I know I can have a voice chat and share my desktop with someone, but what about a group of someones? Thoughts?

11 thoughts on “Big Blue Button”

  1. In Canonical we are also looking at Mumble for doing daily calls. I am not yet sure what exact features it has, but it is open source.

  2. [
    Full disclosure: I’m a developer with BigBlueButton.

    I experienced the audio gaps yesterday as well. Our demo server gets a lot of traffic, and there are further optimizations we want to do to the built-in SIP VoIP phone in BigBlueButton to prevent the gaps.

    If you wanted to setup your own BigBlueButton server, you could do it in about 15 minutes using Ubuntu packages. The instructions are at the Google Code Site for BigBlueButton.

    When viewing desktop sharing, you viewers see a scaled image by default; however, they can zoom in to see your desktop pixel-for-pixel (it’s lossless as well). The following video shows how they can zoom in.

    got to [2:48] to see how the zoom works.

    Thanks for making this blog post Shaun!

    Regards,… Fred

  3. Be sure to take a look at DimDim ( as well. And yes, I think the idea of hosting software like this at or is fantastic, not just for developers, but for many other open source projects, particularly collaborations on GUI/usability design.

  4. Fred, how about a more catchy name instead of Big Blue Button? HandsUp (as in raise your hand, show of hands) fits better with the virtual classroom idea.

    You’re welcome!

  5. DimDim claims it’s open source, but it’s last source release was version 4.5 from 2008. It’s way outdated.

    They seem stuck on offering only the hosted version, and are not willing to remove their open-source advertising claims.

  6. Hey Fred, thanks for the followup. You mentioned that the VoIP feature uses SIP. Is it possible for people to call in using a SIP program like Empathy or Ekiga? For the desktop sharing, would it be at all feasible for people to view the shared desktop using a VNC viewer like Vinagre?

    1. BigBlueButton is all open source components, and all the current source is available for download from our Google Code site.

      We use Asterisk on the back-end for the voice conference. With asterisk, users can connect using either the phone system (this needs to be configured by whomever sets up the Asterisk server), or from within the BigBlueButton client, which works out-of-the-box.

      The BigBlueButton client uses a modified version of the red5phone. See

      We’ve modified red5phone to make the UI much simpler. When you click on the headset icon within BigBlueButton, you are making a SIP call to the Asterisk server.

      If whomever sets up the Asterisk server also enables users in Asterisk’s sip.conf configuration file, you can have other SIP clients connect as well.

      The end result is regardless if participants connect using a phone call, BigBlueButton, or external SIP client, all will appear within the BigBlueButton interface.

      Regards,… Fred

      P.S. The name “BigBlueButton” comes from the goal of setting up a virtual conference/classroom is as simple as pressing a single big blue button.

    2. A few thoughts on desktop sharing. We’re not currently using VNC viewer as it requires the presenter to run a VNC server.

      By design, we wanted BigBlueButton’s desktop sharing to work on mac, Unix, and PC computers. Since Flash can’t look at your desktop, the best option was to run a Java applet. Only the presenter needs to have Java enabled to share their desktop, there is are additional components required by the viewers.

      When sharing your desktop, the Java applet periodically takes screen shots, divides the screen into tiles, compares each tile with the previous screen shot. If there is a change, the tile is compressed, send it to the BigBlueButton server, where it’s reassembled and sent to the client. The compression is very efficient (Adobe Screen Codec) and lossless.

      With a decent upload connection, it works pretty well, and there are no DLLs or anything that preclude Unix presenters from sharing their desktop.

      Regards,… Fred

  7. Hi!

    My name is Marc and I am with Tiki, a full-featured, open source, multilingual, all-in-one Wiki+CMS+Groupware written in PHP.

    We have been using/testing BigBlueButton for a while now, and we have recently included integration code in the standard install of Tiki version 5 (not as a 3rd party add-on, but as part of the core). So, it is now very easy for all Tiki-powered sites to connect to a BigBlueButton server. Just enter your BBB server information in the admin panel. This provides single sign on, permissions, etc.

    The BigBlueButton community has been __very__ helpful. You can try it out:

    More information:

    Best regards,

    M 😉

    Marc Laporte

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Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work by Shaun McCance is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.