Video conferencing (VC) represents a steadily maturing technology that offers the channel huge opportunities. We speak to vendors and partners to discover how the adoption of VC solutions is advancing in the region and their outlook for the future.

IT investments across Middle East organisations are fast evolving. One area that is witnessing burgeoning interest is video conferencing (VC) technology that was earlier viewed a luxury investment reserved for larger multinational corporations as a means of communicating with disparate offices.

Although video conferencing technologies are still available at considerably elevated price points, the competition within this space has steadily grown with more vendors offering competitive and user friendly video conferencing technology, and more channel players acquiring the certifications needed to deploy and service these technologies.

Today, this technology is very much within the reach of the region’s SMB segment.

According to industry stakeholders the adoption of the latest video conferencing solutions is driven by a number of corroborating factors.

While the primary reasons include the cost reduction benefits and travel time saving, IT professionals believe the gradual uptake of this technology is also associated with the maturing of the technology that has led more organisations to see the tangible ROI from the deployment of VC technology.

“A recent study conducted by the Aberdeen Group, looking at remote and collaborative product development, found that the time needed to bring products to market was reduced by 16% through video collaboration. This is an impressive benefit in an R&D setting and an indication of the type of competitive advantage and time savings that can be delivered in more common day-to-day working practises,” says Nidal Abou-Ltaif, VP of Emerging Markets at Avaya

Wael Abdulal, collaboration manager at Cisco UAE agrees. “For the same amount of time I need to travel to meet customers, I can triple the number of customers I can meet by leveraging video conferencing. With VC, I have the ability to bring subject matter experts on the spot and this could mean a much shorter sales cycle,” he explains.

He adds, “Video is a powerful tool. It can bridge distances and cultures, persuade and inform, monitor and protect.”

Hani Nofal, Integrated Networking and Site Services (INSS) director at Gulf Business Machines (GBM) says that many businesses are now looking at these technologies to enhance customer experiences, reach out to new markets and enhance existing business models.

“As a result, companies now want to use it as a tool not only to communicate internally but to generate new revenue streams. For instance, banks or retail businesses can use these technologies to interact with customers remotely by making a virtual agent available to customers at branches or through customised kiosks. Education institutes can use these technologies to provide access to more students through online learning. They can even provide existing students with better resources through virtual guest lectures. And healthcare institutions are already using these technologies to bring medical experts remotely into operations rooms or clinics,” he says.

The adoption of this technology in the Middle East was also earlier hindered by bandwidth restrictions that forced users to shell out huge sums of money to provision ISDN connectivity. “Today, the increased availability of video conferencing technologies that offer better bandwidth utilisation coupled with the availability of better broadband services makes this technology a lot more affordable,  especially when justifying the ROI,” says Dharmendra Parmar, GM, marketing at FVC, a prominent VAD for Polycom and other unified communications solutions.

Technical advances

Cisco’s Abdulal believes that there are yet some factors to be addressed to help boost the adoption of the latest VC solutions. “Today, the video systems that are commonly seen in the workplace tend to be difficult to use and limited in their ability to integrate with other systems. In comparison, video applications in the consumer market have been far more widely adopted. User acceptance has been driven by ease of use, and low cost. To achieve a similar usage pattern, business video needs to be easy to use with a quantifiable return on investment (ROI). Corporate solutions must also enable video applications to integrate easily with business processes and other applications in order to drive additional benefits. Customers are investing in technologies such as VC and telepresence to improve staff productivity, reduce expenses and shorten sales cycles,” he says.

Avaya’s Abou-Ltaif agrees saying that even the large scale adoption of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend is driven by this simplicity. “People want the ease of the iPad, the iPhone or an Android device to help them do their job quickly and efficiently. They want simplicity of use but without any limits on functionality. Businesses keen to realise the benefits of video must address this. Video must deliver the same kinds of features that you have when making or receiving regular phone calls: access to your global dial plan, ad hoc conferencing, easy call transfer, and the same quality of experience regardless of location or device. It is only then that ends-users will consider using video in the way that the business can truly benefit,” he says.

However, vendors are actively working towards addressing these challenges.

“We have seen lots of commercial solutions in the market that can guarantee high definition capability, but they can’t guarantee the experience, and this is the key difference between a good and bad video solution. I am not here referring only to network and bandwidth availability, it is about guaranteeing the experience, whether you are on a private or public network. It is about adjusting the experience to the network conditions. Video is vital to Cisco’s strategy and among Cisco’s evolutionary offerings is Cisco Telepresence, which is a hot technology offering an evolutionary breakthrough technology that is designed to allow interaction and collaboration with ‘in person’ meeting experience,” Abdulal says.

Similarly, LifeSize’s HD video conferencing solutions are underpinned by open interoperable systems based on industry standards to bring the immersive telepresence experience to the board room, conference rooms, executive offices as well as remote workers says Pradeep Angeveetil, regional manager, Middle East and Africa at LifeSize Communications.

Suffice to say that the video conferencing industry is still in the early stages of development, yet vendors believe this is a niche product segment that requires establishing partnerships with the right channel entities to sustain profitable growth.

Broad strategies are focused on establishing long term, close knit relationships with channel partners. While these relationships are marked by the initial stages of handholding, vendors believe this is only to ensure that the partners understand the value proposition behind these technologies.

“We work closely with our partners to help them understand the difference between the value propositions that each of our solutions may bring to the customer. In the long run, this helps the partners position the solutions for the customer’s vertical of operations. In addition, this aids partners in understanding the need for a video conferencing solution, whether it is needed for board room communications or for remote workers on their mobile devices. This ultimately helps them tap into the key business drivers that lead customers to evaluate and consider new video options,” says Mohammed Areff, MD, Middle East and Pakistan, Avaya.

Although the technicalities behind the latest VC solutions require a consistent vendor presence, the channel plays a key role in delivering solutions. Vendors say that the multi faceted role of the channel is perhaps the key reason behind the careful consideration of potential partners. “Partners often act as both the distributor and systems integrators, often signing smaller contracts to provision video conferencing technology specialists, managed network providers or room integrators on site at the customer’s location. Although the products are fairly simple to use, they often require careful integration with the company’s existing infrastructure. This integration often needs to be replicated across multiple branch offices as well,” says Abdulal.

Vendors believe that in addition to selling the products, partners are also responsible for the growth of the entire video conferencing industry. “While they position and supply the product, partners also have to make sure that the customer ultimately gets what he or she has paid for. This is why in addition to their technical abilities; partners are often graded on their vertical expertise and existing customer relationships,” says Areff.

Partners with rock solid relationships across the oil and gas, banking, education and government sectors are definitely an asset, vendors believe.

Knowledge is key

Vendors offer an array of training options to help their partners leverage the many opportunities presented by this rapidly expanding technology arena.

“We ensure that the partners demonstrate the LifeSize experience in the client’s environment. We offer demo assistance to our partners and also assist in pre sales activity. A lot of partners specialising in unified communications have adopted VC from LifeSize, and this is due to our commitment to open and interoperable standards,” says Angeveetil.

According to him, partners can achieve an array of sales and technical certifications through LifeSize’s training delivery portal called the LifeSize Enablement Network (LEN) at no fee. LEN is a new online social learning platform that delivers training on LifeSize products and solutions through a series of short, engaging HD video episodes. The videos are strategically designed for sales professionals, installers, administrators, support personnel and users.

LEN users also have access to a wealth of interactive tools such as quizzes, downloadable sales assistance and personalised newscasts, which can be accessed on any browser or mobile device. Episodes focus on the features and benefits of LifeSize solutions, in addition to providing information on industry best practices, techniques and video conferencing etiquette.

“We also have technical workshops around the region where partners can experience our technologies first hand in order to provide thorough proof of concept (POC) to the customers,” Angeveetil adds.

Cisco’s Abdulal says, “Some partners choose to start with the high-end pervasive telepresence and others choose to start with desktop video conferencing. The programs we have developed fit across the spectrum of solutions Cisco offers. We also have programs developed to equip partners with the skills and expertise needed to cater to specific verticals and business segments. Depending on the certification that our channels choose, they could achieve it by either attending Web-based or instructor-based trainings. This is also available through our training partners. These training sessions are available before products are launched.”

“The Cisco Authorised Technology Provider (ATP) certification is mandatory for the channel in order to sell the VC solutions and ensure adequate training and enablement for partners prior to them positioning these solutions into the market. This programme is complimented by various promotions like the Cisco Collaboration Breakaway program that further rewards partners for focusing on this technology,” says Renton D’souza, divisional director at Comstor, a prominent distributor of Cisco’s collaboration portfolio.

Partners are also working with vendors as an extension of their training arm in addition to helping them identify other potential distributors and resellers in the region.

“Comstor is working closely with Cisco around the TelePresence (TP) SMB program that identifies the next set of partners who show an interest in selling these solutions. We have focused on a host of fast tracks or promotions, and webinars to create awareness and ‘recruit, enable and grow’ our partners,” says D’souza.

GBM is a Cisco certified TelePresence Advanced Technology Partner with experienced and trained staff to deploy large scale TelePresence solutions. The company’s qualified consultants hold specialised certifications such as Cisco TelePresence Solutions Specialist and Cisco Rich Media Communications Specialist.

GBM recently announced that it had acquired TelePresence Video Advanced Authorised Technology Provider (ATP) status from Cisco. “In addition, GBM delivers training and certifications backed up by vendors and partners in the region through GBM Learning Services. We continue to evolve our training portfolio to cater for our expanded solutions line and users requirements. Through a series of workshops and training sessions focused on partners as well as end users, we provision skills based on implementation, processing and administering the latest Cisco collaboration and video conferencing solutions,” says Nofal.

Almasa Value Distriution, extends Avaya VC solutions across the regional channels. According to Roger El Tawil, executive director at Almasa Value Distribiution ensures that resellers have the necessary expertise in solution integration.

The company works with resellers to develop solid skill sets in industry vertical solutions through training sessions focused on configuration, implementation and selling. “We encourage our resellers to gain telephony and communication knowledge – allowing them to implement and educate the end user on VC technologies while continuing to provide user training to help organisations leverage the technology they have invested in. We also offer product demonstrations and sales assistance for our partners,” he adds.

Similarly, FVC, an authorised distributor and training partner for Polycom across the MENA region works with partners on the ground to offer technical as well as pre-sales assistance. “We have demonstration centres and executive briefing centres in our offices around the region where we not only host our partners for regular training sessions, but also encourage them to invite their customers for regular demonstrations,” says Parmar.

Parmar adds that the company’s channel strategy is built around a couple of key drivers for partners under FVC’s ‘Cheer’ partner program. “Through regular awareness campaigns, we aim to generate demand for advanced VC solutions for the entire channel,” he says.

“With more than 10 years in this field, we have invested heavily in specialists covering pre-sales, sales and support functions, ensuring support at all levels for our partners and their customers. Our offices in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt are equipped to conduct these training sessions at local levels through our briefing centres equipped with the latest unified communications solutions. In addition, we offer complementary technologies including solutions from Riverbed and Lancope that help improve the performance of video calls. We also provide specialty equipment like Vaddio cameras and control systems as well as Global Media telemedicine solutions for the education and medical industry respectively,” Parmar states.

Offering value

In addition to the technical aspect, partners are adding value to their vendor portfolios through an extension of services.

For instance, Almasa Value Distribution offers its partners a variety of options including rebates, sales incentives in addition to warehousing, shipping and packaging services. The company also offers partners and customers a Return Merchandise Authorisation (RMA) as after sales support for ‘in-warranty’ products

GBM offers partners with system integration and professional services. The company’s multi disciplined team boasts extensive implementation experience across a wide range of verticals including education, manufacturing, oil and gas, hospitality, transport, healthcare and utilities. This experience is then carried forward through GBM Learning Services.

Comstor offers sales and marketing training in addition to giving resellers access to third party competitive analysis and valuable information on promotions and offers. The company also helps partners broaden their reach through alliances with marketing organisations and the ability to offer global delivery. “There are probably some aspects of providing solutions that most resellers don’t want their team to focus on: logistics, fulfillment, staging, procurement, and invoicing and credit management. These are all areas where Comstor can provide support. By trusting Comstor with the operations and logistics portions of a sale, reseller teams can focus on selling, relationship building, prospecting, building and delivery of solutions,” says D’souza. Resellers can also leverage the company’s buying and inventory management resources and flexible financing solutions.

FVC helps partners target the region’s booming SMB market that are often deterred from investing in video conferencing solutions due to the huge costs associated with setting up a robust telepresence infrastructure. “We have signed agreements with some of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the region and are able to offer these solutions through these ISPs on an opex model, providing faster ROI,” adds Parmar.

Its these initiatives that have together contributed to the spurge in demand for VC solutions, vendors and partners believe.

“We have seen a steady double-digit growth in video conferencing solutions over the past few years as people realised the business benefits, especially in a geographically diverse region like the Middle East,” says Parmar.

GBM’s Nofal says that the company has also witnessed healthy growth driven by customer’s demand, the availability of more affordable bandwidth and lower equipment cost.

“The revenue from collaboration as a whole and from VC solutions in particular has sky-rocketed in the last 18 months. The reasons could be the combination of a few factors – like the maturing of the technology, the ability for organisations to see tangible ROI from investing in these solutions and reduction in travel budgets due to the economic climate,” says Comstor’s D’souza.

Just the beginning

Industry stakeholders believe that although the benefits of VC solutions can no longer be questioned, the technology is still young and there is a long way to go before we see large scale adoption of these technologies.

“We see an accelerated growth in the video market, continuing over the next 12-18 months. Avaya has a strong and holistic offering, which allows partners and customers to leverage this growth area. Avaya will continue to drive video solutions addressing all the facets of customer need – including telepresence, mobile video, conference room and integrated video,” says Areff.

Abdulal agrees saying video will become a ‘norm’ of communication “Video is the biggest driver of future IP traffic growth. Both consumers and businesses are driving this evolution. Video is becoming a key requirement for effective collaboration as increasing globalisation drives a desire for more personal contact across geographic and cultural boundaries. Video users now demand the ability to view any content, on any device, anywhere. To enable this greater volume of video, companies must need to recognise the role of the network as an integral foundation able to support these new, robust solutions and applications. The ubiquity of the IP protocol, combined with advances in networking, is transforming the use and value of video,” he adds.

GBM’s Nofal speaks of a different dynamic, believing that the changes to come will further challenge the relevance of the programs vendors have on offer.

“In general we have seen improvements over the last few months. However, this market place will continue to evolve dramatically over the next few years as the demand increases and new business and consumption models evolve such as video conferencing-as-a-service which will be offered from the cloud. I believe that vendors will be challenged to keep their programs relevant and attractive for their partners. In addition I would like to see such program evolve to recognise solutions providers with wider capabilities across multiple solutions and services such as mobility, cloud and unified collaboration,” Nofal states.

“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 service,” he says.

Nofal believes that these challenges will eventually drive more customers to demand video conferencing-as-a-service. “The benefits include known, manageable costs, no up-front capital expense, current versions and support for hardware and software, and assured levels of quality, reliability and availability. In uncertain times, outsourcing is proving to be a viable alternative to buying, installing and maintaining new infrastructure to support VC, especially for SMBs,” he says.

LifeSize’s Angeveetil agrees, saying that the company has already noted this trend and is currently offering its VC infrastructure via a virtual machine (VM) platform.

He also adds that we will witness a huge shift in enterprise VC technologies as they provision integration with mobile devices 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 required as more users demand to bring their own device to the workplace. The ability of the VC solutions to evolve to become more affordable and take advantage of the growth in the mobile networks bandwidth and coverage besides mobile devices capabilities and penetration will drive a new phase of growth and innovation in this industry,” Nofal predicts.

El Tawil believes that as vendors continue to focus on driving simplicity and interoperability across the latest VC solutions, this form of communication will become more accepted across the Middle East region. He adds that the innovation of narrow band video conferencing, in addition to the emergence of the click to call or video concept will only drive demand further. “We will continue to witness a natural progression and evolution to the UC infrastructure. As video and audio communication technologies continue to improve, there will be an increase in the ROI and the experience of video conferencing will become increasingly natural and intuitive to a wider range of users,” he says.

The future ahead seems bright and sunny. With vendors focusing their expertise on enhancing the flexibility of this technology and partners determined to maximise the functionality of VC solutions through training and certification, customers can now look forward to deploying these solutions at lower costs. The increasing competition within this space, coupled with the options of purchasing equipment on pay-per-use models will probably help vendors and partners finally tap into the region’s growing SMB segment.  Most importantly, the fact that the channel plays a pivotal role in the go to market strategies of almost all the vendors offering these solutions ultimately means there are plenty more gains to be had. Now all we have to hope for is more innovation and more support from the vendors.

The moral of the story is as Abou-Ltaif puts it. “If the adoption of video in the enterprise is to truly become pervasive and if businesses are to really reap the benefits it can deliver, then simplicity, ubiquitous access and reliability must remain the watchwords at any and every stage of the deployment. It is only then that video will become the new voice and that video as simple as a phone call will reign supreme.” //

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