Video conferencing is coming to the corporate mainstream, and here’s why.
The business world is changing, driven by technology developments and workforce and workplace shifts. Collaboration is now front and center in the strategic plans of large and small enterprises, driven by the need to build better teams, speed product and process development, and share knowledge and experiences among team members. Video conferencing, in turn, is adapting quickly to meet a whole new set of customer requirements. In fact, video conferencing has expanded from its early days of being a standalone room-centered technology to being an integral part of personal communications software on desktop and mobile devices.
Here I highlight six trends and developments that are bringing video conferencing into the corporate mainstream.
Support for Scale
As time goes on, more and more individuals who have grown up with the Internet, mobile devices, and visual communications are entering the workplace. IT departments, in turn, are adjusting to meet the demands of this evolving workforce for greater mobility, flexibility, and more choice in how and where to work and which tools and devices to use for which tasks. As a result, video conferencing is being democratized — no longer limited to senior executives, but now a tool available to product managers, business directors, and human resources experts.
Hence, enterprises with dozens or even hundreds of room video conferencing systems are now wrestling with the challenge of deploying and supporting thousands or even tens of thousands of video-enabled small conference rooms and individual workers. The video conferencing industry in turn is responding to this challenge with devices that are easier to use and support, software systems that make deployments more manageable, and lower-cost hardware and software endpoints that a company can economically deploy in large numbers.
For any business tool to be successful, it must be reliable. The solution has to provide a consistent user experience every time, or users will choose another tool. This is especially true in the communications world, where multiple people participate and where multiple options exist (voice, video, text chat, email, etc.).
In a recent Wainhouse Research survey of video conferencing users, 95% agreed or strongly agreed that video conferencing is more reliable than it was just two years ago, and 92% agreed that it is easier to use as well. Most of the 168 respondents — 87% — claim to be using video conferencing more than they did two years ago, while a smaller number agreed that their companies have expanded the rollout of UC solutions with or without video.
For video conferencing, reliability boils down to two key elements:
- Meetings need to launch on time. Having three people in each of four meeting rooms wait while the host resolves a connection problem or fixes a computer peripheral setting is an unacceptable waste of workers’ time. It serves to demotivate workers on using video conferencing for future meetings.
- The user experience must be solid and repeatable. Audio should be clear and echo-free while video should be high definition without artifacts. In addition, the communications delay should be low enough to support interactive, natural discussions. If today’s electronic meeting cannot provide an experience similar to a physical, face-to-face meeting, then workers will not use the video conferencing solution.
Integration With Enterprise Systems
In the past, video conferencing technology largely existed in a silo, limited to conference rooms and often without an integrated scheduling process. Even when an enterprise deployed video to desktop and mobile devices, most departments used stand-alone video conferencing applications. This situation is now changing, driven by a growing interest in providing business professionals with a single user interface or even a single application that can handle voice, video, text chat, presence status, and even file sharing. Hence, UC vendors are positioning video conferencing as an integrated part of their communications solutions, a capability that is always available and easy to use.
The video conferencing industry is responding with solutions that enable integration of their room and personal systems with UC solutions, thereby giving users the benefit of interoperability with a larger number of colleagues combined with high-quality audio and video. In addition, video conferencing vendors and service providers are addressing the challenges of scheduling shared resources by introducing plug-ins for popular calendaring systems. These make scheduling and reserving a conference room a single-click operation, another driver for utilization.
Infrastructure as Software on Physical and Virtual Servers
Running enterprise software on physical and virtual servers has been a common technology solution in the business world for many years. But only in the past three years has this concept extended to video conferencing where the need for complex, high-speed computations and low-latency response times are crucial to delivering an acceptable user experience.
Today, gateways, gatekeepers, and other video infrastructure devices are available not only as dedicated hardware platforms, the traditional approach, but also as software running on industry-standard physical and virtual servers. The benefits of this new approach center on flexibility:
- Deployment flexibility means that customers can use a third-party public cloud offering or deploy solutions in their own data centers.
- Licensing flexibility means that customers can purchase licenses in units of one, and can expand or contract their pool of licenses as needed, without hardware chassis limitations.
- Business model flexibility comes from the fact that many solutions require no upfront capital expense — a company can purchase infrastructure on a “pay as you go” operating expense basis.
- Technology flexibility means that feature enhancements are a simple matter of software updates — a company faces no hardware upgrade limitation.
Growth of Inter-Company Video Conferencing
Just a few years ago, enterprises largely deployed video conferencing as an internal tool, facilitating communications among colleagues on the same IP network. Inter-company video conferencing was, in many cases, limited by network security policies that blocked incoming (and often outgoing) IP video calls. And even if the IP video traffic could enter or leave the company’s network, additional hurdles included call routing issues and vendor interoperability challenges. So despite strong interest in inter-company video, attempted calls would simply fail. And because of this, many companies simply gave up on the entire concept.
Today, however, companies have softened their stances on IP video, with most allowing at least outgoing video traffic to traverse the firewall and leave the network. In addition, service providers have expanded their offerings to allow companies to meet over video in the cloud. And over time, video conferencing has become a common tool for inter-company communications.
Recent Wainhouse Research surveys of video conferencing users show that up to one-third of video calls are now off-net (meaning to external people or sites), and that for enterprises with fewer than 10,000 employees, this percentage is even higher. Typical examples of calling an off-net video participant include interviewing a job candidate, collaborating with a remote expert, connecting with a patient in a telehealth network, and calling on a supplier or customer to discuss a business arrangement.
Adoption of New Technologies & Services
Although the video conferencing industry is well over two decades old, hardware and software advances continue to drive higher-quality video, lower bandwidth requirements, and feature-rich collaboration applications. But perhaps the trend most in the public eye is the evolution to cloud services, giving enterprises the ability to connect with nearly anyone who has Internet access. Cloud services enable customers to consume video infrastructure as a service rather than as a product, a relatively new business model for the video conferencing industry. Cloud services offer customers a combination of affordability, flexibility, strong performance, short deployment time, redundancy, scalability, obsolescence protection, and more.
On a separate development path, video conferencing vendors are embracing new compression schemes such as H.265 and VP9. These support high definition at 30 to 50% lower bandwidths, making visual communications ever more affordable and practical. In addition, WebRTC holds the promise of video-enabling the ubiquitous Web browser, making video conferencing software downloads a thing of the past and allowing almost any device to become a video terminal.
Whether you are an IT professional or a business line manager or work at a large or small enterprise, the trends and technology changes I’ve outlined above should be part of your strategic thinking and planning process. Visual communications is becoming mainstream, not just by providing travel savings benefits, but also by enabling new ways of working. Enterprises that do not adopt a communications plan that embraces video will risk becoming non-competitive.
Fortunately, the video conferencing industry is responding with solutions that offer strong performance, at lower price points, and that integrate more easily into the work environment than ever before. AV integrators and value-added re-sellers need to stay abreast of these developments and be prepared to offer solutions that will deliver value and competitive advantage to their customers.