Unified Communications

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Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Next Killer Tablet App: Multisite Videoconferencing

Tired of TSA pat-downs? The cost of a plane ticket now buys a year's worth of multiparty virtual chats via a SaaS model.

For IT, the real business promise of video communications has centered on enabling multiparty conferences -- a Hollywood Squares version of the person-to-person call. But until recently, multiparty video hookups were the domain of TV networks and large enterprises that could afford high-priced, dedicated circuits and conference rooms stuffed with expensive hardware.

Luckily for the rest of us, the democratizing effect of technology has brought full-blown multiparty videoconferencing into reach for any company that can swing the price of a monthly software-as-a-service subscription. And rather than staring into a separate webcam, users can take advantage of their tablets.

Given today's ubiquitous high-speed Internet and video-capable devices, we've long taken for granted the ability to quickly strike up a video call. But while point-to-point video conversations are ideal for letting Grandma in Florida experience little Olivia's first birthday, they're not so great for business collaboration. We've all been on webcasts, the very name of which connotes a TV-like experience of talker and listener, where someone shares a slide deck or PC screen while the rest of us watch and/or play "Angry Birds."

Some of these services, notably WebEx and LiveMeeting (now Microsoft Lync Online), have morphed into bidirectional videoconferencing systems. They have been joined by services like Skype that first added individual video calling and later multiparty capability. Further crowding the market is a slew of VoIP specialists such as 8x8 and Nefsis expanding into the video business.

Aside from the gee-whiz factor of having a group video conversation with far-flung colleagues, the exciting thing about these services is how inexpensive they are, particularly when compared with catching a flight and renting a hotel conference room to hammer out something that might take a team only an hour or two of face-to-face time. And by inexpensive, I mean petty cash, expense-account cheap in many cases.

Conferencing services are typically grouped into a couple of pricing tiers. For $10 to $20 per month per user, you get the ability to conference with eight people at a time, while 15 to 25 simultaneous users typically runs closer to $50 or $100 per month. The pricing models aren't standardized, so shop around. Some services, like WebEx, price based on a meeting host, while others, like 8x8, price per virtual room, meaning anyone in the organization can host. Most also allow desktop and slide sharing, meeting recording, and archiving and either bundle in or have an option for conventional voice-only dial-in access.

User interfaces also vary among services. Some are entirely in the cloud, using a browser-based application; others use proprietary thick clients; and some, like VuRoom, bolt onto Skype or LiveMeeting. Tablets represent the next generation in videoconferencing clients, and several apps, notably WebEx, Fring, Fuze, and VidyoMobile, already provide multiparty conferencing on iPads and Android devices. Some services also support dedicated telepresence systems like those from Cisco, LifeSize (now part of Logitech), and Polycom, for larger organizations with dedicated conference rooms.

Aside from the low subscription price and support for virtually any PC or tablet with a video camera, the other great feature of today's videoconferencing services is just that they are SaaS-delivered services, requiring no dedicated on-site hardware, expensive software licenses, or IT care and feeding. As is de rigueur for any Web service, these run over existing Internet links, although most will require a Wi-Fi connection on mobile devices and won't work, or at least work well, over a 3G link. Sure, that would be nice to have, but compared with earlier videoconferencing systems that required a dedicated circuit into each location, I can live with it.

Note, however, that for full 1080p HD, endpoints will need at least a 1.5- to 2.0-Mbps uplink, which could be a problem for small- or home-office users relying on an asymmetrical broadband (cable or DSL) connection. However, dropping back to 720p, which is more than adequate for most use cases, drops the bandwidth requirement to a readily available sub-1 Mbps.

So, before scheduling your team's next face-to-face group meeting and being groped by a government employee, check out videoconferencing 2.0. You may be pleasantly surprised by the quality and convenience.

Get lessons from five companies on the front lines of implementing unified communications. Also in the all-digital supplement of Network Computing: Mike Fratto on how to make the case for UC. Download the supplement now. (Free registration required.)

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