The Web 2.0-inspired phenomenon of short, snappy video delivery--Google, MSN, Yahoo, and others are following YouTube's lead--is one mainstream companies must embrace. Increasingly, employees and customers expect to consume and create information in video form, without all the formality that accompanies it today. It's up to IT departments to make that possible.
Vendors are pitching new ways to get your company into the mix. Cisco Systems last week launched a business unit called Digital Media Systems that's selling encoders to turn video into digital formats; a media server to host searchable, categorized video; and a portal that lets companies brand their own Web-based video players. The suite starts at $130,000, challenging a pack of smaller infrastructure vendors in this market.
Most businesses won't go near the freewheeling, user-generated content that makes YouTube, with its 8 million page views a day, a blockbuster. "What you have to be careful of is the CEO taking a look at YouTube and saying, 'Why would I want in my business a video of a kid running his bicycle into a telephone pole?'" says Rich Mavrogeanes, founder and CTO of VBrick Systems, which has a product that competes with Cisco's.
Instead, expect a lot of cautious first steps in the coming year as companies experiment with Web video. One such effort involves monitoring factory lines--not exactly the stuff of YouTube.
An intrepid few companies already are pushing beyond the video applications long popular in the business world--for internal communications and training. For example, Frito-Lay is challenging people to make their own Doritos commercials for possible play during the Super Bowl. Submissions will be screened, though, and only five finalists will be posted for public viewing on Yahoo Video. And, after homemade videos of the foam eruptions that come from dropping Mentos into a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke became a huge hit on video sites, Mentos itself bought ad placement on the original video at Revver.com.
Video At Work
Cisco is going after a growing segment of the business market in which production quality isn't up to TV standards, but the video is much easier to produce. The company's products already are being used by government agencies to broadcast, for instance, live town hall meetings to remote offices and to provide battleground briefings to central command. At colleges, professors are recording classes and using Web portals to host video and presentations online. Banks and retailers are creating training videos that employees can watch from their desktops.
"Three years ago, you had to prove video's value to enterprises," says Thomas Wyatt, general manager of Cisco's Digital Media Systems business unit. "Today, the conversation isn't about 'why do I need it?'' but 'how do I get started?'"
For one thing, it takes a good amount of infrastructure: encoders and decoders, set-top boxes, portal software, Web player software, video servers, cameras, and videoconferencing equipment. Of course, Cisco wants to be a one-stop source for all that. Digital Media Systems bundles encoders, a media server, portal software, and the player, so that customers can plug a camera into the encoder, which captures the video and sends it into the media servers, where it can be categorized, stored, and pushed to desktops. Cisco's biggest advantage in dealing with high-bandwidth video may be its network capabilities, such as caching. "Without this, video files could bring a network to its knees," says Ira Weinstein, an analyst at Wainhouse Research, which specializes in rich media content.
Though Cisco lends a big name to integrated video systems, there are smaller vendors such as VBrick Systems, with big-name customers such as Ford, Morgan Stanley, Pfizer, and Qualcomm. VBrick last week introduced version 4.0 of its EtherneTV Media Distribution System, which starts at $30,000 and includes a server, portal software, and a portable appliance that's similar to an encoder.
Cisco's grip on business networking doesn't give it a lock on video. The city of Jacksonville, N.C., runs Cisco networking and gear for voice over IP, but in the past year, it spent about $70,000 on VBrick's EtherneTV video appliances and 12 digital set-top boxes. Since the beginning of the year, the city's been delivering Web content over IP to municipal TVs throughout the area. It also records training sessions that people can watch live or on demand. This hurricane season, the city used its video infrastructure to send reports from county emergency operations centers to the city's community-access TV station.
"We're sending briefings about damage, storm locations, closures, and shelters to any person who has cable TV," says Earl Bunting, Jacksonville's IT services director. "It's even more immediate than local news because people are getting the information live directly from people making the decisions."
The big change is that users accept--even expect--that Web video comes with a lower, "good enough" quality. "It used to be that 'Oh my God, I'm going to have a Webcast. That means I need to spend $50,000 on a production room,'" says VBrick's Mavrogeanes. Now it's the message that's important. People "don't care as much about the production value anymore," he says.
But the messenger does matter, and most companies still want to exercise some control over who produces and publishes video distributed over their networks and through their Web sites. VBrick and Cisco both build in access-control mechanisms to manage who can upload, post, and view videos. Companies aren't coming to Cisco saying they want to give everyone the right to publish content, Wyatt says.
It's when companies break through that barrier and tap the creativity of user-generated content that Web video gets really interesting. Frito-Lay's create-your-own-commercial campaign will give the company an abundance of information about how customers see its marquee product. "Consumers like to personalize what's important to them. Just look at the popularity of the iPod and MySpace," a Doritos spokesman says.
The University of California at Berkeley is working with Google to broaden its video presence. The school has been Webcasting videos of some classes for 10 years, but last week it started posting content on its own Google Video site, hoping to get greater exposure through cross-platform access, higher resolution, downloads, and content sharing. It also recently started putting its video on Apple Computer's iTunes site.
Berkeley's Webcasts had 4.5 million views during the last school year. "Not everyone is getting into Cal, but you can still audit a course for free," says Obadiah Greenberg, product manager for webcast.berkeley. "We have alumni who are continuing to attend Cal virtually."
The university is interested in slowly opening its Webcasts to student and other university groups that want to share content--say, of campus tours, athletics, student plays, group meetings. "We still don't know, now that we're engaging the students, what's going to show up," Greenberg says. The university isn't giving up control: Greenberg's team approves videos submitted and usually gets involved in the production process.
Decentralized content creation is where video gets scary for most businesses--but also where it gets most interesting. What happens when a company gives, say, all its franchisees the ability to post video, so they can share ideas that are working in their stores? When engineers around the world can post videos of prototypes? Cruise line travelers, model railroad designers, Harley riders--there's no end to the customers who could create authentic video content that businesses would do well to capture.
For now, most businesses will play it safe. Last week, carmaker Saturn said it would join Google in a pilot Web ad campaign for its new Aura sedan. The Web ads, Saturn's first using Web video, let a shopper use Google Earth to click on a nearby dealership, then show a clip of a salesperson from that dealer urging the customer to visit. Says Scott Horn, Saturn's Internet marketing manager, "You have to go where the consumers are taking you, and video's where consumers are on the Web."
Now companies must figure out how to give customers and employees video--and learn to get it back from them, as well.