Video for Business – 5 Solutions to Communicate and Work More Effectively

Updated: March 29, 2010

Video can be deployed in a variety of ways by SMBs, and this analysis presents five distinct modes, starting with the most basic, and building up to the higher-end solutions.

1. Desktop video

This applies primarily to desktop PCs and notebooks, but could include netbooks as well. In terms of video, personal computers have advanced on many fronts, and can be just as easy to use as sending email. Built-in cameras are now standard, and webcams are both inexpensive and high quality, with many supporting HD.

One-to-one video calling is very intuitive, and the experience greatly enhances regular phone calls. This is largely made possible by faster broadband speeds and the use of advanced video codecs that compensate for variables such as low lighting, background noise in the work environment and unexpected changes in bandwidth availability. Desktop video applications are much more standardized now, which translates into a more consistent experience across the various types of PCs and peripherals.

Best of all is the fact that there are many free desktop video solutions to choose from, with Skype, Google and Yahoo being the most widely used. Video has now become a standard extension of IM/chat-based platforms, and the quality is perfectly acceptable for business use. Building on this is a broad tier of paid video services, which are typically used for video conferencing, webcasts, training and product demonstrations. This is a different way of using video, but as desktop solutions go, these can be very effective. Well known examples include WebEx, Adobe Connect Now, GoToMeeting and Acrobat ConnectPro.

2. Video phones

As the locus of communications continues shifting to the desktop, the tried-and-true telephone has needed to evolve. Before IP, we used the PC for data and the telephone for voice, with minimal ability for integration. As businesses adopt converged network architectures, all communications flow over a data connection, including telephony. To keep pace, the desk phone has gone from digital - or analog - to IP, but has remained voice-centric.

Early generations of IP phones had display screens, but these served mainly as visual cues to add a bit of intelligence to telephony applications. More recently, IP phones have integrated video to mimic the desktop experience. As such, these phones now have larger displays, support color, and in some cases HD audio and video. Telephony is now just another feature here, and some vendors no longer even call them phones - they're multimedia devices. All the major PBX vendors support video now, and video leaders such as Polycom and Tandberg have joined the trend with integrated voice/video desk sets of their own.

Of course these offerings are more expensive than regular IP phones, but the price points are steadily improving, and the convenience is quite appealing. On the other hand, it could be argued that these products have limited utility considering that most desk sets are used in close proximity to a PC, which will invariably have a larger, higher resolution screen. However, that is really a matter of personal preference, and my point here is to show how the desk set is a viable option for using video.

3. Boardroom video conferencing

This has usually been the domain of larger businesses, but again, with IP technology, affordable options exist today for most any situation. The economics and technologies for today's video solutions are much improved, and all the leading video vendors offer a complete family of products. Boardroom-style systems are still widely used, but SMBs can also choose from a wide range based on both price point endpoint style.

For single person or small group use, there are desktop systems with standalone monitors that look like small flat screen TVs. Moving up to small or larger groups, there are bigger tabletop or wall-mounted systems, most of which are portable enough to adapt to varying room configurations and conditions. Then you have the full-size boardroom systems, which now resemble a home theater experience. These also come in a variety of styles and are either wall-mounted or pedestal-based. Depending on your needs, boardroom systems are available in several screen sizes as well as multiple screens where multimedia collaboration is the norm.

In all cases, the quality of experience is very high, with HD audio and video being common. Most systems are standards-based, which means they can interoperate with each other. This allows businesses to take video well beyond its traditional boundaries by allowing offsite participation, such as from branch offices, remote workers, suppliers and customers. Another advantage of IP-based video is the ability to record sessions for future use, as well as live streaming to provide Web-based access for those not connected to your video system.

4. Immersive video conferencing

This is the most expensive option for video today, and is typically outside the reach of SMBs. The term immersive refers to the fact that this form of conferencing is a sensory experience, and is akin to comparing a regular movie theater to IMAX. While the above-mentioned varieties of video conferencing are very good, this option is exceptional, and represents the high end of the spectrum.

Telepresence is the term most often used here, and implies a virtual experience that is more life-like than anything that's come before. If you have seen telepresence first-hand, then you'll know what this feels like, and it really is as advertised. Despite being prohibitively expensive, first generation telepresence systems have gained enough traction to prove there is a market.

The good news for SMBs is that this early acceptance has given vendors enough confidence to produce scaled-down, lower-cost telepresence systems - most notably Polycom, Tandberg and Cisco. These may still be too costly for smaller businesses, but less so for the upper tier of SMBs. Vendors are also looking into new routes to market for telepresence, and accessibility will grow in the form of purpose-built facilities at popular venues such as hotels, airports, conference venues and business centers.

5. Mobile video

This option is presented last, not based on price, but rather on availability. Mobile broadband and the explosion of smart phones are jointly driving this option, but the timing isn't quite right yet. While the demand for mobile video seems insatiable, most usage today is either for streaming video or watching saved content. There is some adoption for person-to-person video calling, but in all cases, the applications are overwhelmingly consumer-based.

At present, the demand for video is ahead of what most mobile operators can provide in terms of broadband, and until that imbalance is addressed, business applications for mobile video will be limited. However, help is on the way as carriers are quickly moving to 4G, LTE and WiMAX network technologies, all of which will be a boon for mobile video.

As these networks are rolled out, operators will be able to provide the throughput and QoS required to support business-grade video, even in HD. With the proliferation of smart phones and increasing mobility of workers, there is little doubt that SMBs will find mobile video an essential capability once these networks get up to speed.

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