New Fundamentals

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As a serious student of computer science and broadcast engineering, I’m reluctant, yet obligated, to point to the Jetsons as setting the standard for videoconference technology.

There are other examples, but the Jetsons offered one of the first of two-way video in use for business — Mr. Spacely needed a way to yell at George without leaving his desk.

Even if you don’t subscribe to the Spacely management style, videoconferencing may offer great utility and return for your organization.

Time travel

Looking back, I’m surprised I never gave a second thought to the inevitability of the videophone. It made perfect sense to Cosmo Spacely and it makes perfect sense now. It only took 30 years for videoconference technology to be on its way to rapidly becoming a mainstay in business and poised to explode globally.

Those not familiar with video collaboration technology should get familiar. It is one of the new fundamentals for doing business. Those who jumped in the videoconference arena early, I’ve lived the nightmares with you. Technology, our understanding of the work environment and its applications have changed dramatically over the past eight years.

Emergence of standards. In the beginning, systems from different manufacturers wouldn’t connect. That has, for the most part, changed. There are standards set by the IEEE standards groups that require a level of compatibility between systems and backward compatibility with older systems.

Each manufacturer still employs proprietary features, some of which may be important for your application and workflow. However, the base application of real time video is a standard.

Network capacity rises as costs fall. The dawn of videoconferencing was fraught with network availability and reliability issues. The places you most needed it didn’t have access to the network that supports videoconferencing.

Reliability and availability of ISDN and broadband networks have risen dramatically. There are so many options that it’s more common to have difficulty deciding which network to employ than finding one. Options and competition drive prices lower, and they’ll continue to fall as new players enter the space and technologies maximize bandwidth.

Hardware capabilities rise as costs fall. In the first five years, the technology was long on cost and short on features and reliability. It was not uncommon to pay $100,000 per endpoint for the hardware alone.

Mass production has brought hardware costs down to a commodity level and new features appear in each release of software and hardware. However, beware of low-cost products that make it look as if they are plug-n-play devices.

The jetless

Are we on the verge of jetless travel? For the last eight years, the cost justification for investment in videoconference technology has been the savings on travel costs. Five years ago, it was about saving four or five trips a month to reach an even return on investment. Today, justification is more like one trip per quarter.

However, there are exceptions.

For some interactivity, there is no substitute for travel. A dramatic reduction in the number of trips is not guaranteed unless workflows are analyzed and the proper systems are designed and deployed.

Productivity gains/losses can outweigh travel cost savings. This can be an argument for or against the technology. Half-hearted deployment of the technology with an executive order to use it can decrease productivity. But organizations that embrace it by deploying usable technology in conjunction with training can dramatically increase productivity.

For most interactivity, typical videoconference technology is not a substitute for travel. It may prepare workers for more efficient and effective personal meetings and may even increase post travel-effectiveness by enabling post-travel communications.

And beyond

What are the next steps in the Jetsons saga? The answer is in the cartoon. Cosmo Spacely loved the technology because he didn’t have to leave his desk to scowl at George. There was great utility for Cosmo. It fit his workflow and management style.

However, George hated the system for business. It was a device of “pain distribution” for management. George enjoyed using the videophone to talk to Elroy, Jane, Judy and even Astro. Here are the truths in this cartoon.

* Videoconferencing is a great tool for visual communicators and management.

* Videoconferencing has enormous potential for consumer use.

* Videoconferencing alone does not enable a typical worker to be a more effective part of a collaborative team.

Videoconferencing is a component of the virtual workspace, which enables collaborative teams. Conversations augmented by video are only useful to those who use these tools exclusively to get the job done. To enable enhanced productivity in the new economy, a virtual workspace must support collaboration in rich media.

We must share documents, spreadsheets, drawings, maps, etc. That virtual workspace can be a lecture hall, boardroom, hospital operating room, conference room or the desktop.

It must extend every possible capability of that workspace, which needs to support the workflow of those utilizing it. Firms that embrace these fundamentals are successful. It’s not as cut and dried as the ROI for video vs. travel, but it hits the balance sheet.

One of the most important things to understand regarding videoconferencing, collaboration and streaming is that it’s not just a hardware decision. It is a combination of workflow analysis, facility design and hardware. After all, participants are on TV.

We’ve come a long way, George. Now it’s time to take the lessons learned and apply them. These are the new fundamentals. Gary Quasebarth, MCSE/MCP+I, CTS ([email protected]) is executive vice president of technology for MCSi’s Cleveland office. MCSi (www.mcsinet.com) is the nation’s largest supplier and integrator of broadcast, computing, networking and visual communications products and technologies. Reach him and MCSi at (800) 777-7178 or (440) 238-0102.