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"Video Conferencing" D.O.A.? permanent reference link


February 16, 2009 -- After the long predicted "Year of the LAN" finally arrived, use of "LAN" and/or "Local Area Network" died off. "Ethernet" and/or just plain "network" were more sensible words to use -- there was no need to encompass the losers: ARCNET, Token Ring, FDDI et al. Even with the emergence and prominence of WiFi, displacing Ethernet in some contexts, there has been no apparent revival of "LAN".


Anecdotes, financial results, public opinion and popular culture suggest that we have experienced the year of video conferencing. However, with this arrival of video calling, the term "videoconferencing" is rightfully dying. A variety of terms, e.g., "telepresence", and brands, e.g., Skype, have emerged and become more useful than "conferencing".


Besides the other reasons "video conferencing" is dying, the new and established vendors would like to distance themselves from the not so distant past when dedicated circuits and/or ISDN seemed necessary, when calls were difficult to establish, and when audio/video quality made calls anything but natural. Cisco has been particularly vigilant in this distancing.


Of course, "Dead On Arrival" is hyperbole, intentionally overstated to grab attention. Just as the acronym/phrase "LAN/Local Area Network" will continue to be part of our discourse, so will "video conferencing". Friday's All Things Digital/WSJ article about Cisco TelePresence being used to let "fans have a special in-person experience with a player" at the NBA All-Star game in Phoenix uses the headline "NBA Turns to Video Conferencing". However, the momentum has turned, in that the technology is now mainstream, and in that the terminology is now that of "telepresence", "HD calling", "video communication", and "Skype calls".


In popular culture, what I notice most is an increased prevalence of prime-time television shows and movies that show video calling. In addition to the usual un-identified, not necessarily realistic depictions, there seem to be quite a few Cisco product placements, where TelePresence is woven into the plot.


Looking at the numbers, major HD system providers seem to be having substantial growth. Though Cisco's Annual Report doesn't reveal specifics of TelePresence sales, it does say:

Cisco TelePresence -- one of our "emerging technology" products -- is beginning to gain meaningful adoption in the enterprise and service provider customer segments. On many occasions, we have observed that when our customers experience the power of this technology, their reaction proceeds from "wow" to "I want to have it now". Our customers have begun to understand firsthand the power they can gain by implementing video and visual networking solutions in their corporate network ecosystem.

(Note that Cisco, like most other providers, seems to avoid "video conferencing".)


The focused providers are more forthcoming with financials. Austin-based LifeSize "recorded record sales in the second half of 2008 and close to 150% growth for the full year ... Because the benefits of HD video are so clear, compelling and measurable, many LifeSize customers are accelerating their video communication system deployments." The larger Austin-based provider, Polycom, reports revenue growth to US $1.1B, with more than two-thirds of that now based on video solutions. Video, not table top audio, is fueling Polycom growth -- per Wainhouse: "As has been true for the past few quarters, the voice division reported the weakest results." And Tandberg annual video revenue alone is approaching US $1B, characterized by Wainhouse as "yet another amazing quarter".


The excitement is not just with the room systems -- even with prices below US $10K, room systems are beyond many budgets. My video calling these days is almost exclusively with Skype. The raw Skype growth numbers, at a recent rate of 380,000 users a day (reported here and here) are mind-boggling. Though video calling is but a fraction of Skype usage, (a) Skype video calling is clearly a major priority in Skype development and (b) video is a lead feature in Skype promotional material. There is even a Skype protocol videophone for sale.


The integration of video calling is particularly strong in the new 4.0 release for Windows. As more and more notebooks and monitors include reasonable quality cameras, video calling becomes immediately available to the over 400 million Skype users. I especially like the way Skype handles integration of voice, video and instant messaging. Though calling is prioritized over messaging, messaging other Skype users is natural. Most of the other IM clients from AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo et al allow for voice and/or video calling, but not nearly as easily as with the Skype clients, in my opinion.


And, just as the IM-focused clients do not make it easy enough to make calls, in my experience the H.323 and SIP video calling clients do not make it easy enough, if possible at all, to use messaging and IM-related features in a call.


coda -- the elephants in the room [update November 10: elephants dancing]


The biggest questions regard interoperability, primarily because of the lack of interoperability support from Cisco and Skype. LifeSize, Polycom, Tandberg, et al may not have been in (the video calling) business 20 years ago, but they have plenty of people who experienced the video conferencing interoperability limitations before H.320. So those companies strive to interoperate at a high-level. Cisco initially released TelePresence eschewing interoperability with others' equipment.


At the end of a December 2007 press release, Cisco mentioned forthcoming support for "CIF, H.323 and G.711" -- legacy standards from 19, 11 and 35 years before, respectively. Seemingly, the only readily available details consist of a 4 page Q & A that seems intent on de-prioritizing interoperability and avoiding interoperability with the HD video and wideband audio provided by the other industry principals. With Skype, the situation is even more extreme. Skype seems to get most of its income from audio calls to the PSTN, i.e., SkypeOut, but at present the only video calling is with Skype proprietary protocols.

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