As networks expand and mobile consumerisation familiarises the technology, video collaboration looks poised to enter the business.
Since the 1980s, year after year, evangelists of video conferencing have consistently claimed businesses would soon realise the benefits of the technology and adopt it on a wide scale.
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However, as often as they have proclaimed video conferencing as the next big thing, they have been proved wrong as, time and again, companies opt for telephone calls or even getting on an aeroplane over the video conferencing products on offer.
In 2012, devotees to the cause of video conferencing have reared their heads again, claiming suppliers have the technology ready for mass adoption.
But will this year be another disappointment or is it time we all talked video?
Case study: The British Medical Association
The British Medical Association (BMA) has a large staff tasked with protecting the interests of doctors across the UK. It is in constant contact with government and other leading organisations to keep its agenda uppermost on their minds. Over recent years, the BMA has begun using video conferencing not only to communicate with these external bodies, but to host meetings with colleagues at their desktops.
As enthusiasm grew for the technology, so did the number of users. Its previous solution couldn't handle the 140 home workers, 25 overseas employees and over 1,000 desktop staff demanding access. "Basically, we needed our members working from home, hospitals, surgeries and clinics to be able to talk to each other and share data, anytime, anywhere in the world, using whatever equipment they had -- up to 40 participants concurrently," says George Birch, information management and technology support services team leader for the BMA. It decided to adopt a solution from Radvision. This included the Scopia XT1000/1200 HD room systems and the Scopia Desktop, a web browser plug-in that brings video conferencing to PCs or Macs. The back end for these systems included the Scopia Elite MCU (multipoint conferencing unit) with PathFinder security and Scopia ISDN Gateway for video conferencing with external organisations.
All the hardware could then be controlled using Radvision's Scopia iView management suite, be it keeping track of the devices connecting to the network or managing traffic and bandwidth. "We use video conferencing like many other organisations use the telephone," says Birch. "Our users don't see technology as a limitation but as a right. They want to be able to use their webcam from a hotel room or their mobile to dial into a meeting from anywhere in the Middle East, for example. "With our Radvision solution and especially Scopia Desktop, they can do that easily."
The mistakes of the past
The idea of holding meetings over video as a concept has grabbed the attention of many over the years, but according to Andrew McFadzen, head of global marketing for network solutions at Orange Business Services, it was a lack of technical maturity that held people back, especially when it came to cost and quality.
In the past, businesses would have to spend a lot of money on equipment, bandwidth and room design to get good quality video. "Systems were not user-friendly and many times you would enter a room and if the video was not activated, nobody would know how to turn it on," says McFadzen.
This complexity aspect was definitely a key driver away from adoption, according to Richard Bennett, director of unified communications and collaborations at Avaya. "The overlying video view has been stalled by complexity," he said. "If you go into a video room, you walk in and it says please enter the IP address of the person you want to call; all of that is wrong, in every single aspect," he says.
"A user will only adopt something that is absolutely clinically simple and brings real value. Even for me, and I come from a hugely technical background, trying to remember an IP address is impossible, trying to click here, then click there, then send a PIN, then enter a room ID is just too long a process. "I will not engage with that and I would prefer to get up and go and see someone in their office and do 10 meetings in a week."
The consumer knows best
In recent years, the invention of consumer video conferencing -- such as Microsoft-owned Skype or Apple's Facetime -- has removed the barriers of cost and complexity and encouraged a new generation of workers to embrace video technologies.
McFadzen says the consumerisation of IT has a big effect on the adoption of video. "YouTube, video games and internet technologies makes the younger worker very visually oriented and used to working in real time, but across disparate locations," he says. The abundance of new devices on the market, such as smartphones and tablets, make the consumption of video much easier.
"Now users have access to these tools in their private life, for example streaming Skype on smartphones. The use and adoption of video in the workplace -- albeit 'business quality' -- is a natural extension of this," says McFadzen.
Quality over quantity
Quality is the major issue for consumer video conferencing. The ability to talk with live images from anywhere in the world may be captivating, but internet-based, free streaming is usually low quality and prone to dropping the connection.
Suppliers targeting the business market must make sure these issues don't hit corporate meetings.Roy Illsley, principal analyst at Ovum, claims this focus has paid off. "The issue of quality has been relentlessly chipped away at by all suppliers and today many of the best solution are jitter-free and latency-free, which were real obstacles to wider adoption. Much of the work on this has been to do with how the communication protocols were optimised for video and audio traffic."
However, Illsely believes improvements can still be made to the quality and the use of bandwidth over time.
"The challenge now is to make these high-end systems operate to the same quality, with fewer network resources," he says.
"However, even the current best systems are not broadcast quality -- you cannot be filmed over a video conference and have that image broadcast on TV."
The future is mobile
The high-end solutions and desk-side options have given businesses at the top or in the middle of the pack plenty to think about and solved most of the issues around quality, ease of use and cost. But for mass adoption, video conferencing technology must move to the small companies, as well as offer a more flexible way for businesses of all sizes to interact through video. "The high end will continue to advance and become even more sci-fi like, but the big area in take-up will be in mass adoption from the mobile device," Illsley says. A number of the large video conferencing firms have already begun offering Apple iOS or Google Android versions of their suites, while some companies have started rolling out corporate mobile and tablet devices for video calls.
The problem for the lower-end products will always come down to the network they are attached to. Even if the device or software is flawless, the local internet connection may not be.
Moreover, mobile devices depend on either public Wi-Fi or mobile data networks, which are often unreliable.
The future of video conferencing
This year certainly could be the year of video conferencing. It has come on leaps and bounds since it was first touted over 30 years ago and it is something businesses are beginning to seek out, rather than suppliers having to make the hard sell. But as with many parts of business IT, today's trend is mobile and without robust public networks equipped to handle video's data-heavy needs, performance will not reach the standard for corporate conversation.
Progress is being made. The UK has finally announced its 4G spectrum auction and new public Wi-Fi deployments are being rolled out every week. Yet, for video conferencing to make its mark, it may have to wait a few more years for network infrastructure to catch up. The year 2012 may not be the one where video conferencing becomes the dominant force, but it is clear today the technology is better and more accepted than ever before.