Up close and personal

A picture may be worth a thousand words but managing videoconferencing solutions can translate into a thousand headaches.

And guess what: end users don’t care because they are just crazy about collaboration via video technology. Part of the appeal is that visuals can enhance the overall communication process, and the savings in travel costs and time can be tremendous.

Desktop videoconferencing allows people to interact through a PC camera. The camera captures the image, compresses it and sends it over a wire. The other desktop then decompresses the signal into the image that is seen on the screen.

Lately, many users are discovering that video on an individual client can be more appealing than room-based conferencing, because users don’t have to leave the desktop. Intel Corp. started the desktop videoconferencing surge with its line of ProShare products. The microprocessor giant sees video ultimately becoming a standard application, like a Web browser, said Doug Cooper, marketing manager at Intel of Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

“We’re involved because it’s an extension of how we use computers,” he explained. “It’s the preferred way for people to communicate because you can see the person while you’re interacting.”

But the favoured method isn’t always the most practical. Videoconferencing – particularly desktop videoconferencing — can eat up bandwidth on a network like there’s no tomorrow. Just ask Steven Nakonechny, director of corporate IT for Toronto-based PC DOCS. He tells PC DOCS employees not to use desktop videoconferencing because it can cripple the network very quickly.

For example, any employee with a PC camera and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 4.x can download Microsoft NetMeeting and engage in a real-time video and audio exchange with another user. PC DOCS has client/server applications running across its WAN, with priority given to e-mail and sales force automation. For that reason, the company can’t afford the major congestion that video can bring.

Instead, Nakonechny steers end users towards PC DOCS’ room-based conferencing products. But even that option had caused bandwidth problems. Nakonechny had to move the room-based conferencing solutions from the company’s WAN because the quality had suffered considerably. Now, videoconferencing is on a separate public-switched ISDN network.

Putting videoconferencing on its own network was definitely worth the extra cash, Nakonechny said. “It was a business decision… when you have choppy video and audio, it can be distracting,” he explained. “We are now running at 25 frames a second. In comparison, normal TV is 30 frames.”

Video via the desktop is mainly geared for one-on-one interaction and isn’t expected to replace room-based conferencing, users and analysts agree. The quality of room-based conferencing is much superior, and most desktop videoconferencing users occasionally work from home and use the technology to communicate with colleagues at the office.

Brady Gilchrist, a consultant at Marshall Fenn, a public relations and advertising firm in Toronto, does just that with NetMeeting. He sees desktop videoconferencing as the definitive means of communication.

“With a courier, you’re going to get the highest quality message but there’s a time factor. With a fax, you can only see the text clearly and it’s hard to control a presentation with e-mail. But this is a closer [approach] to how we interact with each other. It’s like sitting across from somebody.”

Marshall Fenn accesses NetMeeting over their corporate network and Gilchrist admits that bandwidth can be a problem. Because of the restricted pipeline, the company is limited to two video sessions at a time. One way of decreasing bandwidth use is using NetMeeting for solely video communications — instead of relaying voice over the network, Gilchrist uses the telephone.

“I think most people do it this way because there may be a delay in the voice (if going across the network) and if we’re just doing local calls anyway, it’s not an issue,” Gilchrist explained.

Are most businesses prepared to spend the more than $1,000 that’s required for superior-quality set-ups?

Industry observers don’t think so – at least not in huge numbers. Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. predicts that this technology is only appropriate for tactical deployment. While more than half of the top 1,000 companies worldwide are experimenting with desktop videoconferencing, only 10 per cent are using it seriously, said Al Lill, a vice-president and research director at Gartner.

The price of videoconferencing has come down considerably in the past two years – from US$5,000 to about US$1,000. This is mainly due to the move from hardware-based to more software-based solutions. Today’s desktops have enough power to accommodate more graphics-intensive software, according to Cooper.

But the price point still has a way to go. If you are going through ISDN — which arguably gives you the best video and audio — it can be quite expensive. For example, Intel ProShare Video System 500, a software-based desktop videoconferencing offering, costs about $1,500 with the high-speed modem. But that does not include networking costs, long distance charges or an NT-1 adapter that’s needed for an ISDN connection, which can add an additional $500 to $1,000 to the bill.

A cheaper alternative is using an IP-based connection that runs over a LAN and WAN. This option has become more appealing to companies since the H323 standard for running videoconferencing over a network was approved last year.

But Intel ProShare over a LAN transport is still about $1,200, excluding networking and long distance costs, according to Cooper, and industry analysts don’t see desktop videoconferencing becoming a commodity until products drop to the $500 range.

“The price has to be low enough for business to justify purchasing it,” explained Sujata Ramnarayan, a multimedia industry analyst at Dataquest Inc., a research firm based in San Jose, Calif. “And the quality of [desktop videoconferencing] still needs to improve.”

Vendors also have to make their competing systems talk to each other, Ramnarayan added. A recent agreement between videoconferencing heavyweights Intel and PictureTel Corp. is definitely a step in the right direction. While Intel will gain more videoconferencing expertise, PictureTel will finally make its proprietary room-based conferencing products compatible with PC-based tools such as application sharing, streaming video and multicasting. Currently, desktop videoconferencing only makes up about 10 per cent of PictureTel’s business, said Ned Semonite, vice-president of product management at PictureTel in Andover, Mass.

“We’re trying to grow video as an application so that’s why we’ve agreed to do some joint development,” he explained, noting that a common hardware platform to be released next year is in the works.

But PictureTel’s move to become more PC friendly has come too late for PC DOCS. The company currently has eight Intel and four PictureTel systems, with plans to migrate completely to Intel, according to Nakonechny.

“Intel systems are based on PC technology and work with Microsoft NetMeeting, which has become the de-facto standard for video collaboration,” he said. “PictureTel runs on proprietary hardware so you start running into [interoperability] issues. Document sharing gets difficult and the integration isn’t as complete.”

And collaboration is becoming the buried gem of videoconferencing. It’s the main reason why businesses are using the technology in spite of the high costs. An important presentation or proposal can be edited simultaneously by one person in Toronto and other person in Vancouver, for example. As PC DOCS’ Nakonechny puts it: “Talking heads are great but is that alone worth [the money]? No, the key is definitely in the collaboration.”

Ken Oulton, an English teacher at Saint John High School in New Brunswick, who is testing desktop videoconferencing from NBTel, concurs. “Once you get over the joy of seeing the person, the collaboration makes it a useful tool,” he said. “If collaborating, each of us can manipulate data and you can do it all in the comfort of your own home rather than having to meet.”