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Irwin Lazar
Irwin Lazar
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Counterpoint: Demand For Video Conferencing Seems Weak

Since AT&T’s demonstration of the world’s first video phone at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, proponents of video conferencing have foretold of a day when video calls replaced telephone calls.  But 42 years later that day still hasn’t arrived.  Will it ever?

Ann Earon here on Collaboration Loop recently posted some very interesting articles on video conferencing. Given that I’ve spent the last several weeks interviewing enterprise IT executives about their usage of, and plans for, collaboration, convergence and mobility technologies, I wanted to share my own thoughts about what I’m hearing specifically with regard to video conferencing.

Communications and collaboration systems vendors and service providers often tout video as the next big thing now that VoIP has moved into the mainstream.  Cisco provides built-in video capabilities in its latest version of its CallManager communications platform.  Microsoft recently unveiled a new video conferencing camera called “Office RoundTable”. (See video demonstration of Office RoundTable here.)  And as Ann noted recently, telepresence solutions from Cisco and HP, as well as high-definition video conferencing systems from LifeSize, Polycom and others are gathering a great deal of attention.  (It’s worth noting that IBM Lotus did not include video capabilities as a built-in feature of the recent SameTime 7.5 release, preferring instead to support integration of third-party systems.)

But that’s only the half of it.  SightSpeed, a free public video conferencing service, has made several recent partnership announcements with AMD and MTV to name a few.  Video capabilities are now inherent in Skype, both for Mac and PC.  Other public voice and IM services such as Yahoo, MSN, and AOL offer built-in video capabilities.  Apple has been at the forefront of providing video, enabling its Mac operating system with a sophisticated MPEG4 video chat capabilities and built-in cameras on its iMacs and laptops.

So with this push from the vendors and service providers, video conferencing usage must be exploding, right?  Well...not exactly.  In my conversations with IT executives, I’ve seen little-to-no excitement surrounding desktop video conferencing.  Most view it as an annoyance.  They don’t want to be seen, and they can’t justify the bandwidth costs.  Video conferencing seems to go against the trend toward less invasive communications -- note the growing preference for IM instead of voice, given that IMs can be answered whenever a user is available.  One global enterprise told me that they are even phasing out their room-based systems in favor of utilization of web conferencing applications. 

However there are demonstrable trends in two areas.  The first trend is the use of IP to replace ISDN trunks for connections between room-based video conferencing services (much like IP was used to replace TDM trunks between IP-PBXs).  The second trend is the use of telepresence systems which offer a life-like video conferencing experience.  One large global company I spoke with believes they can reduce their travel budget by at least 3% by deploying telepresence capabilities in major facilities -- a savings that will more than pay for the high cost of the systems.

In my experience, video conferencing makes meetings, both one-on-one and group gatherings, more effective by forcing individuals to pay attention rather than check e-mail, surf the web, or watch YouTube videos during an audio conference call.  But video conferencing still has a long way to go to overcome what seems to be a strong human preference for being heard rather than seen.

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