Right time for face time

High-quality business video conferencing  is moving beyond corporate rooms to mobile devices and the cloud, forcing many enterprises to rethink their visual collaboration strategies.

With telecommuters and outside suppliers now serving vital roles in most companies, it has become increasingly important to be able to meet face-to-face with people across the building, across town, or across the ocean without physically transporting ourselves around.

Fortunately, video conferencing  services have evolved to meet this demand, making it easier than ever to share documents, demonstrate software, and work collaboratively on a shared whiteboard from the comfort of your office or even desktop PC.

The new breed of business video conferencing  systems in the market offers comprehensive  collaboration features as well accessibly across an array of devices, including mobile. While the first generation of video conferencing  systems were plagued by performance and interoperability issues, vendors have now started to offer products that are less expensive and easier to set up and move.

“VC has always struggled with cost and ease of use. But the availability of advanced technologies that solve these issues coupled with the need of the companies to save money on travel expenses is making VC more attractive,” says Hani Nofal, director of Integrated Networking & Site Services, Gulf Business Machines.

Vendors such as Polycom are now targeting the cost-conscious SMB segment as well as various vertical markets, all of which increasingly require video conferencing  solutions that are easy to set up, simple to use and need minimal IT maintenance. “To meet this growing demand, there is a rising number of solutions that require minimal specialist support and offer a secure high definition experience, even on congested networks,” says Daniel Weisbeck, VP of EMEA Marketing, Polycom.

LifeSize, another major vendor in the market, says it has products that cater to all segments. “Our entry level Codec retails at less than $3000. We also make it very simple through plug and play installations. Even our integrated systems can be setup in less than 15 minutes. We do not offer complex licensing models,” says Pradeep Angeveetil, Regional Manager of LifeSize Communications.

Zia Mazafary , UCC Solutions Manager, Huawei Enterprise Middle East, says the shift from ISDN to IP has made VC more affordable, more interoperable and capable of delivering HD video and audio than before. “Today, vendors are focusing more on making video conferencing more usable and more integrated for enterprise customers, so that there is a greater sense of unified communication (UC). Vendors are “consumerising” their products – supporting user- friendly and intuitive interfaces that correspond to some of the products and services available on the consumer market.”

Vendors have also made significant progress in the area of user interface, collaboration capabilities and the overall quality of video experience.  “Vendors are introducing new, simpler ways of using the technology from touch enabled consoles on tablets to virtual concierges. Management of VC infrastructure has come a long way with advanced management platforms that help enterprise manage and report in real time. Lastly, with improvements in technology, VC platforms are now available from a mobile device to an in-room purpose built telepresence system with high definition video pushed in low bandwidth conditions, making it easy and practical to use,” points out Farid Faraidooni, Chief Commercial Officer, du.

Mobility is the next frontier for video conferencing  and it’s expected to have a deep impact on the visual collaboration market. “With the proliferation of mobile devices and increasing demand to cost-effectively communicate face-to-face from anywhere, vendors are faced with the challenge of creating easily accessible, secure and high quality mobile applications,” says Weisbeck.

Polycom is addressing this challenge with a secure mobile video solution that runs across multiple tablets and smartphones. “Enterprises as well as the healthcare, education, government, manufacturing, and finance sectors are using Polycom RealPresence Mobile to connect through video for faster decision making at home, in remote locations, and on the go,” says Weisbeck.

Angeveetil says the proliferation of smartphone and tablets coupled with organisations accepting BYOD has an impact here. “Mobility drives efficiency and we are seeing organisations evincing a great interest and requesting us for proof of concept. A teleworker can today be connected on video irrespective of his location to any device that supports open standards anywhere in the world and this translates into efficiency and ROI.”

Nofal agrees that the biggest shift in the enterprise VC will be its integration with both mobility and social media solutions. “This shift has started at the consumer level with some of the new applications that we have seen on smartphones and tablet PCs. Enterprises are now thinking of taking advantage of that which will be anyway required as more users demand to bring their own device to the workplace.”

Another big trend in the video conferencing  market is the move to the cloud. “Increasingly, video collaboration is being delivered through the cloud, enabling organisations to reap the benefits of face-to-face video collaboration – including increased productivity and engagement, business continuity, improved training, and even industry-specific uses such as distance learning and telemedicine. As a result, vendors are faced with the challenge of driving down the cost and complexity of building and managing a public or private video cloud,” says Weisbeck.

Angeveetil says it already has a cloud service called LifeSize Connections, which was launched a year ago. “New users to video can now get the benefits of enterprise wide video conferencing  by subscribing to this service. We are continuously widening the scope of LifeSize Connections.”

Nofal says cost is a big factor driving VC on the cloud. “Vendors and service providers are trying to enable video applications based in the cloud and deliver a reliable and secured user applications and experience. Even with strong demand for VC capabilities and the value proposition for implementing it, VC deployments could be expensive. Beyond the capital expense, even large companies with large IT support groups may have difficulty deploying VC infrastructure, features and functionalities while still ensuring the quality of basic voice, data and video services. This is where VC on cloud becomes attractive, especially for small and medium sized enterprises.”

The vendor community is also hashing out the interoperability issues, which have always hampered the mass adoption.

Fardooni from du says there are several initiatives by vendors to standardise video from a protocol as well as network perspective. “H323, SIP and H264 are well known video standards the industry is standardising on. While some vendors are more proprietary in nature, the pressure from  the end user community to standardise is forcing vendors to comply with these standards.”

On the network side there are initiatives such as the OVCC (open video communication consortium) that is working on creating a standard for interoperability and globalisation on the network side. Several vendors, network providers and VNOC providers are already part of this consortium and it is fast growing.

Angeveetil says interoperability issues are worked on continually by manufacturers through forums such as UCIF and open events like SIPit. “Interoperability and adherence to open standards are definitely to the advantage of the customer. Vendors do realise that customers do not want to be locked with Proprietary solutions,“ he adds

Weisbeck agrees that vendors are shifting their focus to interoperability as this is an emerging necessity in the video conferencing  market. Users are now looking to maximise their return on investment by making video interoperable with an increasingly varied number of endpoints and clients, regardless of network.

He says Polycom has a dedicated focus on scaling video collaboration through a commitment to open standards, interoperability, new APIs, and a focus on a simple experience for end users and IT administrators.

Mazafary from Huawei says it’s important for video conferencing  systems to interoperate with existing unified communications (UC) systems that incorporate functions such as email, instant messaging, and web conferencing.  “Otherwise, this can adversely affect the internal communication efficiency and increases operational costs. Enterprises require video conferencing  systems to be interoperable with UC systems,” he warns.

The advent of mobile HD video over Wi-Fi and mobile networks coupled with dropping bandwidth prices is giving a new fillip to the video conferencing  market. Moreover, VC solutions have become more and more available, and vendors promise to make video conferencing  as simple as switching on a PC. The time is indeed ripe for businesses to start looking at investing in VC solutions.

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