What is the most pressing issue of the day or in fact every day? If your answer was time then you won the question of the day lottery.
All of the neat little technologies that we use are supposed to help us with time management. There is the cell phone, the PDA, the smart phone, and in a broader sense good old e-mail and the internet. Most of us end up using these technologies to cram more into a day but in reality we end up assuming more and more responsibilities.
If you think about it, most of the things we do that absorb time relate to communication. It takes time to travel to and from a meeting and for the meeting itself. It takes time to write e-mails and it takes time to make the phone calls and respond to your Blackberry. Speaking of communications, one of the biggest solutions to saving time is supposed to be videoconferencing.
We have all heard the age-old claim that videoconferencing saves time and money and in some senses this may be true but there have always been obstacles that stood in the way of delivering on all the expectations of the technology. In the beginning of the 1980s videoconferencing systems were big, expensive, and frankly did not work very well. The next generation came into being in the mid to late 1990s and there were orders of magnitudes of improvements. The new technologies were smaller, much more affordable, and left behind the jerky often unintelligible images of the past but problems still remained.
If videoconferencing is to achieve the status in our daily lives that it promises, there are several things that must be done. First of all it has to be very easy to use. A significant percentage of the installed base of existing videoconferencing equipment sits unused in the corner because in the eyes of the end-users it is too complex and difficult to operate. Secondly, it must be reliable. People are "gun shy" when technologies let them down and do not work seamlessly. Poor signals with image latency and jitter, dropped calls, and network down time has ended up creating doubts and a reluctance to use the system by many potential end users.
Next is the issue of replicating a meeting as close as possible to being there. Many legacy systems have done a mediocre or even a poor job in this area leaving attendees with less than what they had hoped for and in many cases not really eliminating the need for a face to face meeting. Finally, there is the issue of cost. Many systems still use a videoconferencing bridge that is expensive to buy and even more expensive to rent by the hour. All of these obstacles have precluded videoconferencing from reaching its full potential.
Fear not, there is light at the end of the tunnel. First of all, there is the next wave of videoconferencing technologies which utilize IP addressability known as SIP which stands for session initiation protocol. The bottom line is that SIP permits the use or initiation of videoconferencing at a very high level over conventional IP networks breaking away from the old telephony standards and sluggish phone lines or ISDN connections. Depending upon the model and the manufacturer, you can actually eliminate the need for an expensive bridge and bridge charges for the first time!
The next hurdle that is currently being overcome is high quality IP bandwidth. The old H.323 telephony standards with their circuit switching created a signal bottle-neck that prevented the images from being all that they could be. The old standards required the users to initiate a call from a single point permitting a single point of failure at the bridge. When the initiator would hang up, the call ended.
Now that we are free to use more bandwidth, we must understand that all bandwidth is not equal. By using IP or packet switching instead of circuit switching we can do a lot more but even though we have a "bigger pipe," low quality bandwidth can suffer from latency, jitter, and those dreaded dropped packets. Enter the world of Quality of Service in terms of bandwidth and you can specify in your service level agreement or SLA from your network provider the quality that you require. Today the demons of poor quality bandwidth can be addressed before they interrupt an important meeting.
We now can employ most of the technical buzz words like MPEG 4, H.264, SIP, and QoS and know that the light is at the end of the tunnel. With our new-found technological strength we have high expectations that we are about to save a lot of time and money but there are still a couple of nasty obstacles in the way of videoconferencing being all that it promises. If we have all the underlying image and signal stuff worked out, we still have the complex operation of the system and the lack of appearing as if we are in the same room to deal with so we can really eliminate that face to face encounter and not feel somehow deprived of the full experience.
The equation "expectations=gratification" is at hand for those of you who have waited so patiently for so long. On the full system side of things, a newcomer, Telanetix, offers a unique fully integrated solution with its Digital Presence Technology. Not to be outdone, the folks at Life Size promise true HD images in a compact system approach and no doubt we will see similar offerings from the big guys Polycom, Tandberg, as well as other new players as they address the real world needs in the latest videoconferencing revolution. On the portable end of things, we already see Cisco, 3Com, Microsoft and Polycom PVX empowering our desktops and laptops at unbelievably low costs. Finally we will soon talk and see each other on our cell phones so get dressed and stay dressed before picking up the cell phone!