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Is Videoconferencing Really Ready For SMBs?

While many small and midsize businesses already make use of low-end point-to-point video communications, videoconferencing maker Polycom says new advancements are about to extend full multi-point videoconferencing and telepresence to SMBs.Bob Preston, Polycoms chief collaboration officer, says the company is starting to see more and more SMB interest in all kinds of collaboration technologies, from real videoconferencing and telepresence all the way down to desktop videoconferencing and voice conferences.

The recession is a big contributor, Preston says, as travel expenses are often the first thing to be cut when times get tight  but companies still need to communicate with employees, partners, and customers across long distances.

But new equipment and standards are also important. Newer products now offer DVD-quality video (not full HD, but still better than desktop video) for as little as $3,000. Polycom says the lost-packet-recovery technology in its QDX 6000, for example, removes the jerkiness and artifacts that can be more disruptive to the videoconferencing experience than lack of resolution.

Videoconferencing is also getting easier to use, with easier interfaces and no requirements for a managed network for conferences with up to 10-15 systems. Bridging technology  not much more complicated than whats used to set up a telephone conference call  can make starting a videoconference pretty much automatic. Thats true even for multi-location conferences, where the various participants are tiled onto the screen at the same time  like the opening credits from The Brady Bunch. And new technology can make these multipoint conferences easier to follow, for example by automatically expanded the tile of whoever is speaking so participants can follow more easily.

An early version of a multipoint video conference?

But in my opinion, the biggest deal in videoconferencing for SMBs is interoperability, and Preston cites progress there as well. He says the H.323 industry standard allows videoconferencing systems from multiple vendors to work together, but he acknowledges that the process is not yet seamless -- despite the fact that some 2 million H.3232-compliant videoconferencing systems have been sold. Were headed in that direction, Preston says, but corporate firewalls, for example, still often stymie attempts to connect to multi-vendor videoconferences without prior arrangements.

While large companies can often find good ROI with just internal videoconferencing networks, or in conferences with key ongoing clients, for SMBs the key is to be able to set up connections with the widest possible network of customers and suppliers. Clearly, progress is being made in this regard, but just as clearly theres still a long way to go.

Preston says Polycoms goal is to solve those issues to let SMBs be as quick and nimble and efficient as possible  to replicate the telepresence experience at a much lower price point. And he cites examples of SMBs that are already getting benefits out of videoconferencing. Mustang Cat, a Texas-based reseller of Catepillar tractors with some 400 employees, faced cancellation of its corporate health insurance policy after several employees passed away within a relatively short period of time. The company brought in an in-house telemedicine clinic, which put the firm in a difference risk category and allowed the firm to get health insurance for its employees.

For now, it's novel uses like that will likely drive videoconferencing into small and midsize businesses. As the technology gets better, cheaper, and more interoperable, though, look for videoconferencing to become an everyday part of the SMB technology toolkit.

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