By Lee Rickwood
No one questions the value of face-to-face communications – but for business today, the associated travel costs, out-of-office expenses and time expenditures that puts a big dent in the bottom line.
Video conferencing is an alternative, one that lets people communicate in real time, using a camera, microphone and connected computer. Connections can be established over phone lines if necessary, but newer approaches use the Web and IP-based connectivity for greater data capacity, usually translating into better picture, sounds and associated content.
Particularly for smaller businesses, an inexpensive option for meeting with clients, customers and suppliers who may be on the other side of the planet is a great advantage. Being able to set your small- or medium-sized business apart from the competition is another.
To take full advantage of the medium, most business owners know they need something a little more robust, a little more professional, than basic person-to-person video call capabilities, such as from Skype, Google Video Chat or even Apple’s FaceTime (and remember NetMeeting from Microsoft, before that company bought Skype).
Most of us find Web-based desktop or mobile videoconference consumer tools like those easy to use and ubiquitous in reach, but more demanding business users require unified application and communication (UC) capabilities, with more asset control, better call quality and improved reliability.
High-end telepresence suites and modern high-definition (HD) video conferencing rooms meet those enterprise-class needs, but they can be more complex to operate, more expensive to use and less flexible in terms of place of origin and participation.
But new products and services make personal conferencing just as possible and practical as professional conferencing.
You can hold a video conference in your bedroom as easily as your boardroom (should you so desire)!
With Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype, there’s a lot of buzz and anticipation about how that service will develop (talk of Facebook integration, multi-party group calling and integration with other Microsoft products abounds).
In the meantime, other companies are pushing a ‘business-grade Skype-type’ solution, and trying to offer pre-emptive videoconference solutions.
Like Vidyo, which connects users through simple desktop video conferencing software and an Internet connection.
In conjunction with partners like office equipment company Ricoh, Vidyo is offering complete and turnkey HD video conferencing packages that let users share documents, photos, audio and video easily.
The entire system comes in a portable package that weighs just a couple of kilos (about 3.5 lbs.).
Vidyo’s conference solutions also connect with portable devices like tablets and smart phones.
A somewhat similar smaller footprint solution is available from the big goys, too, like Cisco and its Umi system.
With new features and lower price points, Umi is designed to work on a home broadband connection (told you the bedroom is a possibility!), but it can adapt to even slower speeds.
Systems like Umi and others will connect to home HDTVs, so videoconference and telepresence images are even easier to watch.
Users who do not want to purchase a videoconference system outright can always use a growing number of ad hoc service providers. They establish the videoconference link between fixed and remote locations while also providing the hardware, software and wetware to use it.
Blue Jean Network is one such company, offering a cloud-based videoconferencing service it says will cost just pennies per minute, be it for institutional or individual customers.
The University of British Columbia is one new user, having tried (and spent lots of money on) big conferencing equipment from the likes of Polycom, Cisco, and LifeSize in the past.
Blue Jean’s lower price structure, and its ability to interconnect with popular consumer tools like Skype (which many university employees already use) made its service an attractive alternative.
The University of British Columbia using the system to video connect between its main campus and a second one about a five-hour drive away, as well as for distance learning initiatives and remaining in touch with members of BCNET, a large academic consortium.
Another hosted conference service, called WebEx (from Cisco) has come out with a new Web-conferencing package specifically for SMBs.
It offers online meetings and videoconference capabilities (for up to 8 people, be advised) at lower fixed monthly rates (it has always offered more comprehensive services to larger enterprise class customers).
The system supports desktop sharing, so everyone in the conference can see the same PowerPoint show or Excel spreadsheet. Conference proceedings can also be recorded and replayed.
Polycom too has unveiled a video collaboration product for small and mid-sized businesses, and other services providers in Canada offering hosted video conference services include Megameetings.com, PriorityMeeting.ca, Intercall and Conti.
The technology to connect home-based, SMB or even enterprice sized companies exists; the message (and the place) is up to you.
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