Proprietary videoconferencing; cans on a string?

IT videoconferencing

Without interoperability, you could liken some videoconferencing systems to the cans on a string you used to play with as a child. I recall that my initial excitement about being connected ‘on-demand’ this way to my friend next door was very quickly overtaken by the disappointment of not being able to speak with any of our other friends. (The other major problem was our shed roof base stations, which caused a nasty fall, concussion and a hospital trip for yours truly!)

Communicating effectively doesn’t have to be that dangerous or limiting though. As the recession bites, uptake for our high definition telepresence technology has been dramatic. It’s truer now than ever; the economic climate is forcing executives of all levels to do more with less. This seems to have brought technologies such as videoconferencing and telepresence closer to many C-level executives. But, the most important factors by far for the mass adoption of videoconferencing and telepresence continues to be interoperability, ease of use and quality. While vendors such as Cisco continue to make big claims about quality, their limited adoption of standards limits their connectivity options. Yet, it's standards such as H323 and SIP that are driving mainstream videoconferencing usage. So has Cisco engineered itself out of the bigger unified communications market with proprietary systems? An all or nothing approach might very well suit the vendor involved for many reasons, but there are wider implications for customer satisfaction and industry advancement.

The real challenge is to offer systems that make the most of new technologies, allowing users to connect utilising ultra high definition where availabile but also be able to connect seamlessly with legacy systems. It needs to be easy for customers to connect their existing videoconferencing equipment or PC video clients and even audio calls from a telephone into any video or telepresence meeting with the click of a few buttons or touches of a screen from a standard directory. Over the last 15-20 years all of the major manufacturers have worked towards setting non-proprietary standards to ensure connection between different brands. But, with the new wave of technology, companies face the problem that they can spend considerable amounts of money upgrading their video conferencing systems, yet not be able to easily connect all sites still using older or non standard systems to their new suites.

I believe that video should create a community of users, not islands of communication. It’s as important for video systems to be able to interoperate with unified communications and Voice over IP solutions as it is video to video. This provides the end user the best experience and most natural way of communicating as possible, no matter what device they are using. No manufacturer today would launch a telephone that could only connect with a limited number of others. This should also be true of video.

At the same time, businesses don’t buy telephones just to reduce the amount of travel. In the early days they truly transformed businesses by giving them the ability to reach out to clients and customers to make decisions in real time and gave them an entirely new way of working. The very first systems were very much like cans with string that required an operator to physically connect a point to point call. The advent of exchanges and standards rapidly changed that; just as standards and the network are for video today.

For example, Tapiola Group, one of Finland’s largest insurance and banking groups, has 100 offices around Finland and 3,800 employees. After three years using Tandberg videoconferencing, it wanted to expand the system so that employees no longer had to travel to meetings. It used Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 so that employees on the network could share instant messages, videoconferencing and voice. Today, any user can join a multi-person videoconference from their laptop if necessary.

And, according to a recent survey conducted by respected market analyst firm Wainhouse Research, interest in integrating videoconferencing to unified communication platforms has grown significantly. I believe that trend will continue too.

Remaining proprietary is not only inhibiting, but it also has implications for the planet. If people can’t connect into a meeting or call from the device they have they will still end up travelling unnecessarily. Standards drive adoption and volume. Proprietary is a problem. Usability is paramount. Just ask Betamax.