Room-size, dedicated videoconferencing systems have been around for decades, and Skype introduced person-to-person video almost six years ago, so users are comfortable with this concept. And in the age of 3G smartphones with front-facing cameras; Webcams built into every PC; and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, where placing a video call is as easy as sending a text message, you'd think videoconferencing would be as popular as those 140-character missives. Yet it isn't, not by a long shot.
In our September InformationWeek Unified Communications Survey, we asked about 11 technology drivers for UC; just 5% cited videoconferencing. Results didn't get much more encouraging from there. And compared with the explosive growth of online video content, the use of interpersonal video communication is downright minuscule.
I see a couple reasons for this: one technological, the other social.
Probably the biggest reason video calling/conferencing isn't as popular as text- or voice-based communications is interoperability: There's no universal directory, call-routing system, or system-agnostic client, as exists with email or voice. When I send an email or place a phone call, it doesn't matter what client or device either I or my recipient use--if I'm accessing my Gmail account via Postbox on a Mac and the recipient is on a corporate Exchange system using Outlook on Windows, it doesn't matter. Likewise for phone calls. It's simple to use Skype on my PC to call Aunt Millie on her landline. Unfortunately, there's a systemic breakdown when it comes to video.
The various systems--Skype, Facetime, AIM, or Tango--don't interoperate. Sure, they each support all the popular clients, from Windows PCs to iPhones and Androids, but I can't place calls between systems. Thus, just because I know a colleague's email address or wireless number, doesn't mean I can reach them via video for an impromptu chat. It's an identical situation to the walled gardens that are the various text messaging systems; a mess that necessitated multiprotocol IM clients and juggling multiple accounts.
In fact, a Cisco-sponsored study on "The Benefits and Barriers to Video Collaboration Adoption" found that 26% of respondents cited the interoperability between video providers as a major barrier to using videoconferencing. Sure, motivated users could overcome these obstacles by having accounts with multiple video providers and noting which friends or colleagues are on which system, but it's a logistical pain that limits the spread and utility of video communications.
Cloud video services attempt to bridge this gap by acting as a go-between to facilitate meetings between people not on a first-name basis. If a Skype call is equivalent to stopping by a friend's place for a chat, a Web conference is more like meeting a couple of colleagues at the nearest Starbucks. Cloud services also overcome the other persistent impediment, cited by one-third of respondents in the Cisco study, to business-oriented video communications: the cost and maintenance of video equipment and conferencing software. By offloading and virtualizing video processing and adding collaboration features like shared whiteboards, displays, and documents, cloud services also provide higher video quality and a richer experience than consumer-oriented, peer-to-peer services. Tom Toperczer, VP of marketing at Nefsis, a video conference provider, says he sees services such as Nefsis occupying a middle ground between consumer-oriented Skype and high-end telepresence. Besides added collaboration features, Toperczer says Nefsis' service provides higher-quality video, supports a larger set of more sophisticated video peripherals (not just Webcams), has scalable video quality (the higher the bandwidth, the higher the resolution), and supports network QoS.
The other major impediment to video communication is sociological. Cisco's study found that a reluctance to be seen was mentioned by almost a quarter of respondents as a barrier to video collaboration, with 5% citing it as the chief reason. Face-to-face meetings, even interposed with a display, are more direct, personal, and intimidating than text or voice, making them unsuitable for spontaneous messages. While the expressive depth of face-to-face conversations introduces visual and aural communication cues that add subtlety and depth to a conversation, thus circumventing the types of miscommunications that black-and-white text or curt voice mails so often create (and that things like emoticons and vocal inflections are designed to mitigate), it also means that video conversations are better suited to those situations that require meaning and understanding, not pith and brevity.
So, the sweet spot for enterprise video communication isn't so much in augmenting the phone call as in replacing the weekly project meeting. For example, Toperczer says that instead of a construction manager or architect visiting a project site once or twice a month for a job's duration, they can have recurring video meetings with the on-site crew. Similarly, a corporate trainer, who might be on the road half the time giving the same course at dozens of branch offices, can deliver the same class over video. It's the old "Why waste hundreds of dollars and half a day travelling" argument. Health care offers other interesting examples, notably in the field of telepsychiatry. Here, as a New York Times feature outlines, therapists can see patients in settings from rural clinics to prisons.
Video communication has reached a point of maturity where its utility and applicability are constrained more by the planning, strategy, and creativity of the user than the available technology and budget. With cloud services, the cost of video is seldom an impediment, even though the Cisco study found cost and budget at the top of reported adoption barriers. Yet, when you find the right application, whether it's replacing the regular project meeting road trip or pulling a far-flung group of employees together for a training session, the case for video is compelling; and with the new breed of cloud video services, implementation couldn't be easier.