Seeing the value in video
Thanks to greater broadband availability and lower-priced technologies, will videoconferencing finally see mass business adoption?
That may mean there is finally a compelling argument for mass adoption of videoconferencing. The triple effect of falling prices, improved technology and wider broadband availability appears to have created a 'perfect storm', pushing what was a niche application to the forefront of business.
"Technology improvements are coming in at similar prices to the older systems, so you're getting far more for your money than you were a couple of years ago," says Seán Holohan, managing director of Videnda Distribution, a supplier of business videoconferencing systems to the audiovisual trade.
According to Holohan, high-definition (HD) technology has been one of the biggest developments in videoconferencing to date. The format's increased pixel count offers better picture quality and makes viewing images on larger screens clearer and easier to watch.
Colours are more vibrant and realistic and movements are smoother than on a standard-definition display. "It's a much sharper image," he reports. "It does take more bandwidth on the call – maybe 1Mbps – but it improves the quality at every speed so you still get better quality at 256Kbps."
Prices have come down to such an extent that HD systems can start from as little as €5,000, Holohan adds. "HD is within reach of small businesses." He points out that the technology has become easier to use – earlier versions of videoconferencing required dedicated communications links instead of broadband, as well as an IT specialist capable of setting up the system.
"Now, a video call can be at the touch of a button," says Holohan. "You can get more out of a video call than you can from a telephone call. With video, people are more attentive and you can work on a shared document."
Videnda distributes systems from specialist manufacturers such as Polycom and Aethra but another development in the videoconferencing market has been the arrival of some well-known brands: Sony and Microsoft.
Sony recently established its Professional Solutions division in Ireland and has been actively recruiting dealers to supply its systems to businesses. The company currently has seven videoconferencing products on its roster. "We will be adding more to the portfolio in the months ahead," confirms Eamonn Halligan, channel development manager with Sony Professional Solutions. "We have products from the entry level through to full HD compatibility."
Halligan believes videoconferencing is a justifiable investment at a time when many firms are looking to control costs. Travel is an obvious area to make savings by using videoconferencing to replace unnecessary face-to-face meetings.
"Everyone communicates with customers down the country; it makes economic sense to have this," he says. "Videoconferencing is so much easier to use now; it's lower cost and better quality. Every business at the moment should have some form of videoconferencing."
Meanwhile Microsoft's foray into the videoconferencing market is RoundTable, an all-in-one device that broadcasts synchronised audio and video over a standard Windows PC. Richard Moore, business manager for the information worker group at Microsoft Ireland, says it isn't intended as a way to grab market share from existing players. At a €2,000 price point, he believes RoundTable will make the technology available to a wider market.
"An organisation of maybe 20-25 people with a couple of offices can afford to put it in place. It's incredibly cheap in comparison to a dedicated videoconferencing system," he says. "The very high-end videoconferencing suite obviously still has its place and at the low end you have desktop videoconferencing using cheap webcams. We just thought there was a gap in the middle for businesses with branch offices. We think there's huge potential for this."
As an indicator of the demand for the product, Moore reports that almost all of the companies involved in the pilot testing for RoundTable have subsequently bought the system. Gerry Kerr, managing director of Microsoft partner CDSoft, agrees. "I do see RoundTable taking off. Any customer we have shown it to has been very enthusiastic about the RoundTable technology in particular, and we are actively progressing a number of projects," he reports.
Microsoft is tying RoundTable in to a wider campaign around unified communications, which brings together all of the different ways businesses now use to communicate with one another, from telephones to email, instant messaging and now video. Many of the dedicated videoconferencing manufacturers are also adopting open standards, which means that different pieces of hardware and software will now work together and greater collaboration is possible; participants in a video call can share files and work more closely together.
A further step up in videoconferencing technology is TelePresence. Sony has partnered with the Belgian firm Teleportel and is planning to launch a full-room, immersive conferencing solution in Ireland shortly, says Halligan. Cisco recently unveiled its own high-end proprietary system, as part of a billion-dollar investment in videoconferencing technology.
"Our intention over time is to have a roadmap of products – some are quite imminent – that move down and up from that price point. Ultimately, the vision is to have this technology in the home," says Cisco Ireland's country manager Mike Galvin.
With an €80,000 starting price, Cisco's initial TelePresence offering is pitched firmly at the top-end of the market, but Galvin points out that it shouldn't be mistaken for being a corporate-only option.
"We see a lot of uses for the technology," he says, giving the example of local councils that could use it to build decentralised work spaces. Another possible user is the healthcare sector, where patients could be 'seen' by doctors who are based in other locations. "We're starting those discussions in Ireland," Galvin adds.
Applications such as this justify the system's ultra HD technology, he claims. "It has spatial surround; as people move in the room, you can hear the sound of where they move to," Galvin explains. "The quality of interaction is very important – you have to be able to see the whites of the other person's eyes. That's what TelePresence gives you."
With a range of options to suit most budgets and a raft of potential suppliers, the choice for videoconferencing customers has never been easier.
Manufacturers might like to talk up their green credentials but few in the industry believe many Irish businesses will be swayed by the prospect of reducing their carbon footprint. Where business is concerned, it usually comes down to cost considerations. A likelier outcome is the money-saving potential will help drive videoconferencing's value.
By Gordon Smith