Is videoconferencing coming to the masses?

Tandberg and Microsoft tout high-definition video camera as being the offering that brings high-end videoconferencing to the masses

Networking professionals have been hearing a lot about the coming of videoconferencing to their computing environments for a long time. Until now, at least, the talk hasn't translated into the actual number of deployments most vendors have been hoping for.

For many companies, giving employees or partners in separate physical spaces the ability to interact in any way more complex than simple teleconferencing has largely been a luxury, not a necessity. Existing implementations have been limited to educational institutions, companies that prefer to conduct training sessions over video, and firms that simply want to show off some eye-candy technology to their office visitors.

This scenario could change, however, with a product being developed by Tandberg and Microsoft. It's a high-definition video camera that the two firms tout as being the offering that brings high-end videoconferencing to the masses. A projected price tag of US$300 actually gives that bold prediction a hope of coming true.

In order to use the equipment, companies must have two network-attached PCs with the cameras installed and Microsoft Open Communications Server software, with an upgrade for high-def video that is coming later in the year.

Without a doubt, much of the impediment standing in the way of widespread videoconferencing adoption has been the high cost of the products available. Cisco Systems has its Telepresence system, which does a spectacular job of making it seem as if the people you're teleconferencing with are right there in the room with you.

The problem is the price tag, which typically starts in the US$100,000 range. Of course, Cisco has never had the intention of marketing Telepresence to "the masses", but the situation illustrates that while there are teleconferencing Ferrari's out there on the market, there aren't enough Toyota's.

Another barrier to big-time videoconferencing adoption has been the perceived amount of time and effort it will take on the part of IT system administrators to get the systems up and running. With IT workers in most shops already being asked to carry out more tasks in less time, adding yet another item to their plates is not what IT directors are interested in doing, especially if it is not of a mission-critical nature.

The task of getting end users up to speed on how to use the new technology has also been a deterrent. Not only do they have to be taught how to use the software, they are also being asked to adjust to an entirely new way of communicating. For many, adding a visual component to formerly audio-only interaction methods is, quite frankly, unsettling. Knowing that such an adjustment is mostlikely in the offing, many IT directors have elected not to make it a primary budgetary request.

The promised price tag of the forthcoming Microsoft-Tandberg offering is a step in the right direction toward making videoconferencing a standard piece of workplace communication technology. Perhaps the most effective restriction, however, will remain that of user reluctance to embrace it. Many people simply prefer the anonymity that comes with a phone conversation.

As cheaper options come to market, we can expect overall uptake numbers to increase, particularly fueled by firms wanting to carry out tasks such as training and that haven't been able to in the past. Given the inherent reluctance of many users, however, we shouldn't expect to see it deployed widely enough to constitute a "coming to the masses".

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