M-tech: Painting a Thousand Words

Just five years ago videoconferencing (VC) was considered expensive, slow, complicated and only for the big corporates. In 2002, the technology has become pervasive in many areas of business, as well as local government, education, the medical sector, and increasingly in manufacturing. There are many reasons for its growth in popularity, including the worldwide availability of ISDN, the rise of IP communication; the decrease of installation costs; better standards which have led to improved system interoperability; and the increasing number of regular users of the technology.

As productivity tool, videoconferencing is out on its own. It is highly efficient way to obtain relevant information without having to sift through mountains of mail. You can see the people you speak to on regular basis, view the objects they talk about, and receive an accurate picture of how they respond to your comments.

Videoconferencing, by virtually eliminating the need to travel, encourages greater participation by remote staff, or those who would normally be left out of the decision-making loop. By their very nature, video meetings also command the attention of all participants. It’s little hard to not focus on the tasks at hand when you’re being eye-balled by other attendees. Videoconferencing encourages collaboration and significantly improves intra-company communications – no doubt about it.

Universal appeal
Videoconferencing is being adopted by wide variety of businesses and organisations, and the most common benefit amongst users is the value it provides to business operations. It’s an extremely useful and powerful tool to provide ongoing education and training; launch new products; orientate new employees; conduct market research focus groups; review ad campaign material; conduct quality control inspections; and repair remote machinery. In fact, anywhere that immediate discussions and decision-making needs to take place, particularly by people based at different locations, there you’ll find VC system. However, there are other factors driving forward the adoption of VC technology, according to Chris Roberts of Boyd Audio Visuals.

“Globalisation affects many companies, from large multinationals to small technology exporters. For both, relationships are crucial to the bottom-line and for companies to remain competitive. With the security alerts and travel delays facing large corporates, and budgetary constraints on smaller companies, videoconferencing has become key facilitator that allows all businesses to operate successfully internationally,” he explains.

Videoconferencing is also being seen as technology that can vastly improve the quality of life for executives who have traditionally spent long periods of time away from family and friends attending business meetings. The technology is now regarded as means to enhance life both in the office and at home.

According to IPEX IT Group’s Gary Clapperton, once the final bastion of resistance comes down (ie price versus benefit) people will rush to add the visual content to communicating. “It’s natural – it’s the way we have always done it. What we are resolving now are the technologies that allow us to do it without time, travel and user interface resistance.”

Checkpoints for buyers
The VC marketplace has become extremely competitive, and although there may not be large number of players in the market compared to other technology categories, each manufacturer presents strong line-up of reliable and robust models.

Rob Love, director of Avcom Technologies, suggests buyers should favour those manufacturers that are “first to market” with features, “as that indicates healthy product development model”. “It also makes sense that the manufacturer is not trying to support large product range across different platforms,” he says. “History shows that economies of scale make it difficult to maintain very large and non-homogeneous stable of products, and it leads to legacy system for which support eventually withers.

“We consider reliability, ease of use, security, deployability, scalability, and manageability to be key elements of our quality of experience,” adds Love. His company often uses equipment from multiple vendors when installing VC system. “Multi-vendor interoperability is important to enjoy best-in-class quality, breadth of features, reliability and ease of use,” he says. “Today we support clients with almost every brand of videoconferencing equipment available.”
Love also says to avoid products that rely on proprietary code. “We believe that features using open standards work in the interests of the client. This guarantees multi-vendor interoperability and continued feature support and development.”

As for future development, because videoconferencing is one of the fastest developing technologies around, system you buy today could become extinct two or three years down the track. This is the view of Canon’s marketing services manager Steve Moulden, who also points out that vendors such as Tandberg upgrade their systems via software to ensure customers stay ahead of technology changes. “The present model release at B4 (Version 4) offers encryption, web chat, streaming, additional multi-site support and other features not available when the Tandberg models were released two years ago.”

Scalability is another vital consideration, and buyers should ask whether systems can be easily integrated with PC-based (desktop) applications, as well as other peripheral presentation devices (such as electronic whiteboards). Like any technology, VC systems can be “over-sold” to customers and you must ask yourself are all those bells and whistles really important? As Sony’s Steve Brady points out “a comfortable user interface is imperative – it should take no more than two or three buttons to be up and running.”

As for wireless capability, videoconferencing is going down that path, but at slower rate than other productivity tools. This is largely due to the fact that most VC sessions involve people seated around table, and cables are kept to minimum anyway.

The IP connection
When asked to identify the major trends happening in the VC marketplace, most industry commentators will refer to the rise of videoconferencing over IP (Internet Protocol).

“IP is really taking off as more IS and IT managers now have better handle on allocating bandwidth,” says Sony’s Brady, suggesting that lack of confidence in dealing with the bandwidth issue has hindered adoption of VC technology in the past.

Other factors fuelling IP’s adoption have been the development of high-level encryption technologies (customers need to know that their VC meeting, although enabled via public domain, is still secure), and, of course, the reduction in line costs by operating VC system across the LAN.

According to Brady, cost and convenience is what drives 99 percent of VC adopters to IP systems (or at least systems that are both ISDN and IP capable). “Most companies have the IP backbone and it’s now very easy to incorporate videoconferencing into that backbone.”

IP-based systems are all about flexibility too. “Manufacturers will look to expand the number of sites that can be connected during calls,” adds Canon’s Moulden, “offering the ability to mix IP/ISDN calls and introduce audio (phone) into the VC mix. There will also be requirement for more collaboration allowing groups to work together.” It is the collaborative aspect of videoconferencing that is expected to further encourage the adoption of VC technology, particularly in the manufacturing sector where often widely deployed technical groups must work together on joint projects.

Boyd Audio Visuals’ Chris Roberts is another who is predicting an IP future for videoconferencing. “We are fast approaching the ISDN/IP crossroad, which is expected to impact strongly on the VC business in the years to come. One manufacturer is already stating

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