As an analyst, I've been tracking the videoconferencing market for years now and have long thought of it as "a problem with no solution" – meaning that it was kind of neat to have but didn't really add much to the way I worked and wound up being more of a boardroom toy than anything else. However, I think a number of things have changed over the years that finally bring video into the corporate world as a viable tool that should be part of the UC strategy for most companies. Here are the main factors driving the use of video today.
Collaboration as a key initiative for organizations
Although we've always collaborated as part of our jobs, only recently have companies thought of collaboration strategically. Over the past year or so, I've talked with many CIOs about how to better enable collaboration among their employees and what the best tools to use are. We have many tools today, such as audio conferencing, Web conferencing, instant messaging and email, but there isn't one that's visually driven, which is where videoconferencing comes in. It doesn't have to be used in every collaboration session, but the fact is that people tend to pay more attention (and retain information better and longer) with a video session than with a voice-only session.
I was in IT during the days of roll-around carts and video systems where half the time the audio and video tracks didn't sync up. The systems were big and clunky and worked only over ISDN, so you needed to be an engineer to be able to set up a video call. From the research I've done, these roll-around systems mounted on TVs generally took anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour of IT time to get up and running, so any kind of spontaneity was impossible. When the quality was bad, it generally took away from the user experience instead of adding to it. Today's systems are of much higher quality. Getting the sessions going is as easy as clicking a mouse, meaning that anyone can use them. The systems also work over IP instead of ISDN, making company-to-company communications much easier today than in the past.
Wider variety of videoconferencing tools
Again, let's roll back the clock 10 years and look at what we had: large TV-mounted systems and small TV-mounted systems. Basically the same experience -- just meant for differently sized offices. Today, in addition to the traditional room-based systems, there are high-quality desktop units that are available at a relatively low cost. Also, today's PCs are of far higher quality and can process the information much better, meaning that the quality stays high. There are also some really cool, innovative systems like Microsoft's Roundtable that actually allow someone remote to feel that he's part of a larger conference environment.
I recently had a six-hour session from a hotel room over Roundtable, and I thought it was a great experience. I got much more out of it than from just a voice-only conference. At the high end, there are products such as Cisco's TelePresence, which is an experience unlike any other as far as video goes. I've attended many meetings over TelePresence, and while it's not quite the same as being there, it's very close.
Constraints on travel and green IT initiatives
I've never liked the justification for video being simply a "reduction in travel costs," but I do think that with the current economic conditions, rising fuel prices, and organizations looking to cut costs, reduction in travel actually has become a driver for video. Reducing the amount of travel can help a company reduce its carbon footprint, helping with green initiatives.
I do recommend that those companies currently in the planning or deployment phase take a look at adding video to their overall strategy. But they should understand the variety of systems that are available today and bring in a mix of video systems. There'll be some initial resistance from users (no one likes the thought of being seen on camera), but I've found video to be a very "sticky" technology.
About the author: Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting.