Challenges Loom in Videoconferencing’s Move to the Desktop

Carl Weinschenk

Carl Weinschenk spoke to Forrester analyst Phil Karcher. Forrester is conducting research sponsored by Logitech.

The focus of videoconferencing is turning from room to desktop systems. The industry still is dealing with tricky issues concerning linking two platform families, according to Phil Karcher, an analyst for Forrester. Karcher told IT Business Edge blogger Carl Weinschenk that all workers who use computers use email and room-based systems to collaborate. However, use of mobile devices such as tablets is far more attractive to the younger members of the work force.

Weinschenk: What is the story behind the research?

Karcher: The research was done in the context of the growing momentum toward desktop videoconferencing. When we look at the different categories and investments there is no secret that desktop is more a priority for IT than immersive telepresence. Room-based still is a category for investment, but desktop is more and more of a target.

There is a shift in the population. Initially, it was managers and execs who used it foremost for travel avoidance. Now there is more of an interest in collaborative work and better communications and the better meeting aspects of these communications technologies.

Weinschenk: What were you trying to learn about?

Karcher: With the background knowledge that companies are thinking more of desktop videoconferencing, we wanted responses to several questions. For instance, take the benefits question: We asked how important certain attributes are. Avoiding traveling to meetings still is number one … The pleasantly surprising thing is improving working relationships was a very close second. Increasing participation and engagement also ranked very highly as a benefit of using the technology. We think that follows the trend of people being more interested in benefits in general, not just the operational cost savings.

Weinschenk: Were opinions and attitudes held general across the board?

Karcher: The changing population base using the technology was background that we collected from our syndicated surveys on the generational use of collaboration technologies. As you might expect, email is ubiquitous across Gen Y, Gen X and the younger and older boomers. Room-based videoconferencing also was big. A third of information workers — those are workers who use computers for their work — found the use of room-based videoconferencing valuable. That is flat across generations.

But on tablets there is a much sharper generational trend. It is used much more by Gen Y and less by Gen X and younger and older boomers.

Weinschenk: What else did you see?

Karcher: In the past five years or so, with the introduction of telepresence, lifelike experiences came to epitomize the industry. The research shows that a quality experience overcomes issues with reliability. Now providers deliver high definition reliably even over the Internet, so the shift is to reach more people. There is more price pressure to make affordable and easy ways to make it available on the desktop and laptops, and not rely just on stationary equipment that costs thousands and thousands of dollars and is housed in rooms.

That equipment is not being replaced. It still is important. But this is in addition to that strategy.  We found that a lot of videoconferencing buyers are concerned with joining rooms to people using desktops.

Weinschenk: That still is a work in progress, right?

Karcher: On the one hand it’s possible today for a single screen system to connect to one from another manufacturer fairly easily if they are on the same network. The major challenge with interoperability is how corporations will expose their infrastructure to the Internet. Depending on where they position the infrastructure in relation to the firewall will cause a lot of issues with ease of connectivity. So there is a lot of challenge. Business-to-business calls still need test calls. As long as that is the case it is not scalable.

Weinschenk: Can the cloud be used as the bridge?

Karcher: If two companies have the same service provider managing the technology or if their service providers have peering agreements, that can simplify things. The AT&Ts, Verizons and BTs of the world provide this. There also are the interoperability services. What Blue Jeans Network does, which I find interesting, is connect desktops very easily to room-based services, particularly using Skype. There is a lot of interest in desktop clients as a way to solve business-to-business issues. Desktop clients solve a lot of connectivity issues.

Ultimately, there will be video in the browser and conferences will be held without the need for downloading any additional apps or plug-ins.

Weinschenk: Is that where HTML5 fits in?

Karcher: I think HTML5 will have strong benefits. There is protocol called WebRTC, which is a proposed standard to make the browser-based conferences seamless. Once it is in commercial products people will get their connectivity through the browser. Blue Jeans released a product that uses WebRTC and it is getting pretty good take up. There may be another company doing it, but there is no standard ratified version. We will more likely see it become more widespread in 2013 or later.

WebRTC is specifically for real time communications. It only works for desktop and mobile devices in browsers for the installed base of companies such as LifeSize, Cisco and Polycom. You still need transcoding to mingle desktops and rooms. Folks who want to join rooms to the desktops will invest in the infrastructure or cloud services to make that happen.

We don’t need an additional standard. Each vendor provides its own infrastructure to enable multipoint video. Multipoint architectures today can easily connect single screen room systems together pretty seamlessly. We have one paradigm for desktops and another for rooms, which is H.323. We still need translation between the two worlds.

Weinschenk: But what if I want to work across vendor lines?

Karcher: If I have Cisco and you have LifeSize and one of us calls the other over the Internet it can sometimes be complicated if we have different providers. There are some technicalities that have to be worked out.

It’s not perfect. It’s not seamless. If you are unfamiliar with the technology — if you are a first-time user — it’s hard. Many organizations today have forms to fill for B2B calls that have to be submitted to the people who manage the call. They do test calls and make sure it works. It’s not perfect.

Weinschenk: Even if you manage to work across vendor lines, do you lose some of the functionality?

Karcher: For most features, sharing content and having a basic point to point call will be at parity [with single vendor sessions].

Weinschenk: What about things that drive efficiency but are not necessarily obvious to users?

Karcher: There are certain things one can take advantage of if the systems are from the same vendor. If two vendors are involved and one of the vendors uses proprietary codecs, there are things you can’t take advantage of such as bandwidth savings. Otherwise I would say most things you want to take advantage of are possible, such as sharing content, inviting people from other system, far-end camera control and muting.

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