The age of video?

I received the call: I was needed on a project, but was I available? I was. My contact, however, was not. He’d gone AWOL. When he called me back a few days later he apologized for having been unavailable. However, he didn’t claim that it was work that had occupied his time. In fact, by way of explanation he referred back to his old days at 3M. “You know what 3M stands for? Meetings, meetings, meetings.”

Videoconferencing, or VC for short, promises to make more virtual meetings possible. Every conference call could become a meeting with a video component, and, with the advent of videotelephony, every phone call could become a face-to-face experience. This may or may not make us all more productive, and may or may not have a positive effect on how we experience our “presence” in virtual space.

But, first things first. Where’s the technology at?

Obstacles abound

The technological hurdles that have hindered adoption of videoconferencing technologies have diminished drastically. Traversing firewalls is easier now that there are products to transition H.323-based video calls. Still, though LAN conferencing is relatively easy, trying to videoconference over a WAN can be a headache. With multiple firewalls trying to handle video and voice, the ports are often not synchronized, meaning that voice, video, or both can be blacked out. A network administrator could open a firewall to all H.323 traffic, whereupon he or she would likely lose their job. Ditto for publicly routed IP addresses.

One solution is to use only registered ports, with an appliance sitting outside the firewall, and software on the inside to secure registration for desktop end-points. But this can be a pain, with gateway registration often one task of many. Technological assessment can be trying, too, with multiple vendors providing workable solutions that can, nonetheless, muddy the waters.

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), with its advanced call-handling features, could replace H.323 in the videoconferencing world. Microsoft is making it the centerpiece of its communication strategy in Live Communication Server. SIP is no panacea for firewall and NAT traversal, however it does have the advantage of being the choice of major carriers, meaning that there will be huge incentives to make it work.

Quality is still an issue, but we’re hearing less and less about it. Compression standards keep on getting better, so much so that videoconferencing can now work reliably at 256Kbps. DSL adoption in Canada makes VC a viable option for many enterprises — even small ones if they are willing to consider a hosted solution — and MPEG4 will greatly improve video down to 128Kbps.

Chris Cullen, Cisco’s product marketing manager for Unified Communications, believes that infrastructure deployment is ahead of adoption. According to Cullen, the market can focus on application layer integration and mapping VC technology to workflow. Two networks, voice and video, can now integrate onto the PBX at a single point of administration. VC, in fact, will be transformed by videotelephony. Whether it be a USB camera on PCs — or even cell phones/cameras — there can be access with a single dial and no separate video addresses, with rich media instantly live on both ends. Cisco claims that the cost benefits are self-evident. “Upwards of 60 per cent of phone usage is now conferencing,” says Cullen, “and that will soon be enhanced by video on the handset. Core control, call centres, conferencing, this is all migrating to IP. The next wave of innovation is the application layer environment and end-user convergence. This will drive video to the desktop, as will gateways to the 3G mobile environment.”

Cullen won’t find any argument from Richard De Soto, Extreme Network’s director of converged solutions. “IP is moving faster than even I imagined,” he says. From 1999 to 2004 he watched a relatively slow awakening, only to find that Extreme’s revenue for network convergence dramatically scaled up in 2004-5, particularly in IP telephony. The issue, of course, is bandwidth. Extreme’s gigabit ring on the LAN can deliver, although the WAN is another matter. He is more cautious than Cullen in his assessment of the infrastructure environment. “For voice and video on a WAN there are still firewall issues.” The demand is there, however, with many organizations coming off of years of minimal investment and ready for a network refresh.

That said, George Goodall, research analyst at Info-Tech in London, Ont., is a little bearish on the technology, for the simple reason that the hype around “presence” that we hear from large vendors like Microsoft and Nortel does not really address a strong cultural preference for privacy. Communication and access is one thing, spying is another. “Videoconferencing is being driven by two different factors,” says Goodall, “First, a replacement for a meeting, where we can sit down over video and have all the richness of a typical meeting as with WebEx and Live-Meeting; the other half is the notion of presence.”

Goodall is well-placed, for the simple reason that Info-Tech’s business model, unlike many other analyst firms, is driven by its mid-market end-user clients rather than by vendors. There isn’t a vendor out there who isn’t singing the praises of videoconferencing, yet Goodall isn’t hearing it from the market. And he questions the overall productivity claims. “A lot of work is document driven,” says Goodall. “How does a video presence add utility to this?”

Enter Kristin Zurovitch, director, product marketing at Sonic Foundry, which provides VC recorder and server software. She’s got an answer for Goodall: we are in a new world of knowledge capture that redefines the notion of “document” management. It doesn’t matter if it’s data, voice, or video — all information must be managed and archived, in part due to the increasingly strict regulatory environment. Voice and video will, in effect, be an increasingly effective tool for recording what have historically been “lost” events.

Zurovitch claims that videoconferencing at the corporate level is taking off. “It provides a face-to-face experience that cuts down on travel time and, of course, cost.” Sonic Foundry’s VL 440 can be connected to any VC endpoint, with automatic stop-start functions and the ability to publish to the server of choice, but the real value-add comes in the ability to store metadata and have template-driven, online catalogues with searchable content.

According to Goodall, VC’s merit can be found in more formal settings such as earnings releases, where the performance of a CEO is key. Cached video channels are a useful tool for companies to provide rich content to potential investors. No argument here from Zurovitch. “Demand for VC is at present at a one to many model,” she says, “such as an executive briefing to an entire organization.”

However, Cisco’s Cullen echoes Goodall’s concerns. Making VC work on WANs will require some footwork with port protocols and firewalls, but the real challenge will be the end-user experience. “Some organizations, like the military, are more hierarchical,” says Cullen, “and the market will demand VC solutions with algorithms that can determine and customize views.” The answer is PBX, for which there is broad competency for use, administration, and management. This will result in the eventual convergence of videotelephony — which Cisco can now deliver with up to 6 people on the PBX — with what is now a specialized VC experience.

“We know there are benefits to a lower fidelity channel,” says Goodall. From Goodall’s perspective, voice needs to have its day before something like VC really takes off, especially in the mid-market. “Overall, for collaboration applications such as WebEx and Live Meeting, we are seeing annual uptake in the 15-20 per cent range. There is now a much higher uptake of voice-based technology, with Canadian penetration in the next three years expected to be about 50 per cent.” But if VC isn’t all that effective, then why is it being pushed so hard?

The Vendors’ Pitch

From the carrier perspective the answer is simple. Goodall points out that vendors are looking for margins, trying to bulk up and get more IP-based, Layer 3 switching, really just wondering what else they can shove down the pipe. “When you look at Nortel, at Avaya,” says Goodall, “they always end their pitch with video.” It would seem, as is so often the case with technology, that for VC invention may be the mother of necessity.

In the end, it may not matter whether or not VC and videotelephony are productivity enhancers, all show and no substance, or even distractions that might reduce effectiveness. Why? For the simple reason that the next generation may demand it. One of the most attractive verticals is education, and the consumer market for videotelephony is huge, especially within the youth market. When these young employees come to work they may simply expect video to be a part of their working reality, especially if they have found it to be an effective communication and learning tool.

The vendors, of course, are ready. Let’s give Extreme’s De Soto the last word:

“VoIP is the primary application, and this will accelerate dramatically in 2005-6. Wireless will be right along with it. All the switch vendors are going to more and more gigabit technology, and video will be right on top of that.”

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