Videoconferencing: What First-Time Buyers Should Know

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These days there are as many flavors of videoconferencing solutions as there are ice creams at your local creamery. For most of us, that's a truly beneficial thing. We can pick and choose the solutions that work the best for our needs—whether it is room size, cost, portability, or bells and whistles.

But for the first-time buyer, there are a few features that one should pay slightly more attention to than others. In this article, we will examine several points:

• barriers to entry in VC,

• what to end-users need to know to make an informed decision,

• how can VC meet your business objectives,

• how videoconferencing works with existing equipment,

• and how videoconferencing can improve existing communications in your organization.

Cost and Complexity

In the past, I believe that the biggest barrier to entry had typically been a mixture of cost and complexity. You had two companies offering products that were $20,000 or more, depending on features selected. Then you had to place a massive cart in your conference room, get the lighting and acoustics right, and control it all with a remote control that—much to my chagrin—was never too intuitive. The marketing department would always need the full support of the IT department just to connect a call, so as a result, even if initial investments were made, they were never used too often. Integrated systems with better control systems were able to simplify things somewhat, but an integrated system's cost also can be prohibitive.

Real World Examples

In 2012, I think that everyone considering videoconferencing should, first and foremost, visit other companies that are doing videoconferencing. Ask their administrators what they like most about their chosen VC paths. Visiting a showroom for videoconferencing or going through dealers will not show you the whole picture because of the evolving nature of the videoconferencing industry.

There are a handful of major videoconferencing options on the market including Cisco/Tandberg, Polycom, Lifesize, Panasonic, and Sony. Vidyo now offers VidyoWay, for example: it is free interconnectivity service for just about every platform.

Each of these companies have advantages and disadvantages, but the biggest problem that we run into over and over again is proprietary peripherals and connectors. These sometimes work in concert to force you into buying that particular product—and not just codecs. If you can buy a codec from Company X and use any camera or microphone you want with it, you will find that your systems will be much more flexible in the future.

Here is the key: Make sure that you select a product that has the capability to expand with your company as your videoconferencing fleet increases. Some manufacturers do not make bridges—believe it or not. If you plan on making large multipoint calls, look into bridging options. Vaddio's bridge is simply called the Vaddio AV Bridge. The company says, "The AV Bridge makes it simple to encode, capture and stream your AV content through a variety of PC applications or directly to the network. You now have a digital gateway to capture, record, and stream those legacy analog solutions."

Telepresence—What is It?

Do not get sucked into the "telepresence" marketing phenomenon. These systems look and feel great, but they are nothing more than a collection of off-the-shelf commercial AV systems cobbled together running multiple codecs.

If you desire an immersive type of videoconferencing system, you might be able to use proper camera positioning and common sense to save yourself quite a bit of money. Look for several value priced immersive systems that will be on the market soon.

Meeting Business Objectives

How can videoconferencing can meet your organization's business objectives, costs, and scalability requirements? Wisely consider several factors. If your goal is to allow your employees to engage in more productive meetings, then videoconferencing is for you. Everyone always says "videoconferencing will save you travel costs," but that is never the case. There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. If you need your meetings to involve more minds and broaden collaboration, videoconferencing can certainly do that for you, and oftentimes, the monetizing those costs are priceless. Some companies go through great expense to record and archive videoconferences. That way, if the next big idea come up during the meeting, they have it all safely archived.

Videoconferencing can also be competitive from a cost standpoint as each of the major manufacturers offer smaller, more "entry-level" systems with fewer bells and whistles. The beauty of these smaller systems though is that codecs themselves can easily be upgraded by software keys. So if you want to upgrade to multi-site, you just buy the software key. If you want to go HD, all you need to do is buy the software key. Upgrading is fairly simple.

Another important point to keep in mind when you are thinking of cost, scalability, and objectives is to always strive to keep your videoconferencing systems as simple for your organization users as possible. Create a rock solid support system and put it in place for your users if problems arise. 

Legacy Equipment

Let us say that your company already has some legacy videoconferencing equipment. Since most videoconferencing codecs are standards based, they should, in theory, all be able to communicate with each other. It may be harder to manage having multiple flavors of videoconferencing hardware across your enterprise, but it theoretically is possible. Some manufacturers will, however, add in an enhanced set of features that only become available when making a call from common codecs. Oftentimes this includes an extra site or expanded audio quality. A manufacturer's use of proprietary connectors might be a deal-breaker in some instances. Let's say you have a $10,000 broadcast quality camera gathering dust from an old installation in a multipurpose room and you want to use it on a certain manufacturer's codec. Sometimes, this is not possible without buying costly adapter cables to fit proprietary connectors, which almost always will end up costing you some level of intended functionality.

Improving Existing Communications Within Your Organization

Maybe one of your departments has a weekly conference call to review sales goals or engineering ideas for a new product. Simply enabling each endpoint to make a video call into a robust videoconferencing network via a multipoint bridge will increase productivity and focus 100 fold. It also will expedite the overall meeting. Decisions are made faster. An entirely new dynamic is added to a previously mundane conference call. 

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Another benefit is that remotely located employees can be given an easy avenue to attain a more active presence in the work place. Videoconferencing technology can be a method that allows full-time employees to do more work remotely without losing any productivity. You can allow your employees to improve the balance between their work and their lives while conceivably not affecting their productivity. There are those that say that it reduces travel and is therefore more "green" but I have not seen substantial drops in travel outlays in large companies after large videoconferencing investments. Meeting productivity increases—yes—but travel expense do not significantly decrease. If that isn't the case for your organization, then great, but one shouldn't factor this in as a day one cost savings.

My biggest piece of advice to every end-user is to take your time getting involved in videoconferencing and thoroughly explore at what other peer companies are doing. Before you seek out the sales-based "advice," do this valuable homework.

I've seen many companies buy way too much videoconferencing for their own good. When you buy too much videoconferencing equipment, the complexity might be rejected by users. The last thing you want is your expensive system gathering dust or creating problems when you invested in it to solve problems in your organization. 

Joseph D'Angelo is a principal consultant with Charles M. Salter Associates, Inc. In San Francisco.

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