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Face Time
Are people really the point of videoconferencing?
By David English

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A funny thing happened on the way to the videoconference room: A lot of people realized that they didnt need to see the other person. In general, when two people are talking about something that theyre doing, from the standpoint of productivity, the most important thing is for them to see what it is that theyre talking about, rather than each other, says Lou Latham, a research analyst with the Gartner Group, based in Stamford, Connecticut. In a sales situation, personal contact is more important, but in a collaborative atmosphere, data and document sharing is the key component. Latham says he frequently receives calls from companies who want to start videoconferencing because they have employees in different offices that need to work together. We talk for a while, and it turns out that what they really want is NetMeeting.

When face-to-face videoconferencing shifts to data sharing, videoconferences become less formal and more of a workgroup activity. Today, when you have a videoconference, you go to a special room, and its all preplanned, says Latham. You have to e-mail or fax things that youre going to talk about. Its an occasion. The goal should be to make it a commodity, and the best way to make it a commodity is to focus on the work that youre doing rather than the novelty value of being able to see the other person. Two architects might view a drawing of a building and work collaboratively on the documentwithout seeing each others face. Or several engineers could cooperate on a new car design and be able to concentrate solely on the project itself.

While some videoconferencing systems, such as PictureTels 970, are designed to accommodate both video and data, there are some tradeoffs between the two types of content. A video stream is optimized for frame rates, so its smooth, says Latham. It might be running at 640 x 480. With a document data stream, its much more important to have a higher resolution. Youre willing to give up the frame rate for a 1,024 x 768 resolution, which is the resolution you would expect on your desktop. He predicts that the trend toward data content will help push the sales of equipment. If you have an NTSC display, youll be looking to upgrade, because you wont be able to work collaboratively on a diagram with 10-point type in the same way you can locally.

Latham predicts that as the gee-whiz aspect of videoconferencing wears off, the primacy of content is going to accelerate. He gives the example of making a phone call on your computer. You do it once or twice to prove you can do it, and then you realize you already have a phone. For many companies, videoconferencing is an expensive phone call thats a lot of trouble to set up. When the IP issues get straightened out, and we have commodity hardware that we can plug into a port and install in a very simple way, then well start to see more ad hoc use. Ad hoc use is the use that will drive the volume and move the market.

Videoconferencing neatly divides into two subcategories: the ISDN-based corporate market and the 56K-modem-based consumer market. The lines are becoming blurred between the two subcategories as corporations shift from ISDN phone lines to network-based IP systems, and consumers move from 56K modems to DSL and cable systems. The most glaring difference between the two subcategories is the price of the equipment. A typical corporate system costs more than $10,000, while a typical consumer system costs less than $100. According to Mark Kirstein, vice president of research with Cahners In-Stat Group, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, manufacturers are tripling their shipments of consumer-based videoconferencing cameras each year. Kirsteins research shows 1.3 million cameras shipped in 1998, and 3.5 million shipped in 1999. For 2000, he expects growth in the 300 percent range. By comparison, the corporate videoconferencing market appears to be stuck in a period of slow, but steady growth.



(Continue to Part 2)

 

 

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