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Skype and Google: The Unified Communications Killers?

From Skype and Google Hangouts to integrated HD webcams and inexpensive video conference appliances, consumer technology is pushing aside 'enterprise-grade' products.

A funny thing happened on the road to our videophone future. Bell Labs' vision of a picturephone replacing the old rotary dialing unit went into hibernation for a few decades and emerged as a PC with a webcam running Skype.

In the meantime, vendors such as Polycom and Tandberg filled the vacuum, making a business out of selling very expensive hardware to enterprises wanting the highest quality and most reliable technology available. It came at a steep price.

A decade ago, outfitting a meeting room with a video conferencing appliance ran well into four, if not five, figures; not to mention the dedicated circuits (typically ISDN in those days) needed for interconnect. Fast forward to 2013: The average enterprise has hundreds of megabits (if not a gigabit or more) of Internet bandwidth, and wireless LANs, mobile LTE networks and home broadband links are more than up to the task of streaming HD-quality video. Meanwhile, hardware costs have plunged by a couple orders of magnitude, to the point that most laptops and smartphones now embed HD-quality cameras.

It's classic disruptive technology at work, leaving companies like Tandberg, since acquired by Cisco, in its wake and Cisco's own Umi telepresence appliance as roadkill in the path of ever-improving consumer-oriented products.

Following the disruptive technology playbook to a tee, consumer-grade hardware and services have finally become good enough for serious business use. Skype is regularly used by network news outlets to interview sources on short notice from their living rooms, eliminating the inconvenience of driving into a local TV studio or the expense of dispatching a satellite studio truck.

Sure, the quality is typically lousy (largely due to the source's poor-quality camera), but good enough for a 2-minute news-byte. Plus, there are increasingly common incidents of reporting brilliance, like this example using nothing but Skype and an amateur's head-mounted videocam, that demonstrate the power of consumer technology to replace long established technologies with something better--if not in quality, then in cost, convenience and flexibility.

Routine business communications are the next domino to fall in this wave of consumerized real-time communications. Logitech, a prototypical consumer products company that flourished by literally building a better mouse(trap), aims to be at the forefront of the revolution.

The company established its Logitech for Business unit in late 2011 with the mission of capturing what it projected as increasing demand for enterprise-oriented peripherals like headsets, webcams and conferencing appliances to supplement its traditional consumer-oriented mouse and keyboard franchise. Enterprises seem a natural target for consumer-oriented companies like Logitech, but what I find most interesting in the area of UC and video is how they bring product design philosophies and values--notably, simplicity, usability and price--to a market that is historically less cost-sensitive, more tolerant of complexity and accustomed to a healthy dose of IT care and feeding.

Take for example the ConferenceCam 950, which I recently had the opportunity to try during a briefing with Logitech's senior manager for video products, Ziva Nissan. It's a $250 device (easily available online for under $200) that incorporates a 1,080p camera, with remote control (included) pan, tilt and optical zoom, and full duplex speakerphone in a compact, USB-pluggable package. By adhering to the UVC standard, setup is trivial with no software installation required; in fact I used a Chromebook to conduct the briefing.

Which brings us to the second part of this consumerization story: the rise of public Web services as enterprise communications platforms. My Logitech briefing was done via a Google Hangout, not some expensive video conference service or even an business-oriented product like Webex or GoToMeeting.

The results were outstanding. Outside of some initial glitches as yours truly figured out how to disable the Chromebook's internal camera and mic and just use the external conference cam, the call and video quality were great, while the ability to remotely pan and zoom the camera, replicating features of high-end enterprise systems, provides the versatility needed in small group meetings.

Aside from Skype and Google, the Internet is littered with free and paid video chatting and conferences services such as VSee and ooVoo. The bigger problem is usually picking one that meets your device and security requirements (unlike Hangouts, most require a client-side download), but most people will be satisfied with either Skype or Google.

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We're in the midst of the democratization of video, where previously specialized and expensive technology reserved to a small priesthood of professionals and deep-pocketed large enterprises has been unleashed on everyone. Translated to IT, this means adapting communication strategies to reflect the new era of cheap and easy consumer-based products and services and incorporating hardware with consumer DNA into the workflow.

For network managers, this means ensuring end users have the requisite bandwidth and service quality on their endpoints, be it a smartphone, tablet, Chromebook or laptop, to enable an era of anywhere, anytime video collaboration. Your colleagues will thank you for every unnecessary business trip and TSA pat-down they can avoid. Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio

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