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New Paradigms In Enterprise Video

November 28, 2004

Room-based and desktop videoconferencing gear is improving. Here are the latest enhancements.

Forty years after AT&T first showed a video-phone at the New York World’s Fair, video telephony, also known as videoconferencing, remains a niche application with limited availability in most enterprises. Customers have resisted video for a number of reasons, including poor image quality (it didn’t look like TV), high operating costs, technical difficulties related to endpoint management and ISDN network troubleshooting and the aggravation of complex user interfaces.

Vendors have largely addressed these problems in room-based video systems, quietly notching price/performance improvements of 20-25 percent per year and growing the market to annual shipments of more than 100.000 units. As discussed in greater detail below, the newest systems are dramatically superior to those shipped even a few years ago.

Desktop video is improving, too, thanks to the ubiquity of IP in enterprise networks and the growing popularity of instant messaging and presence. Vendors have adopted a new paradigm, treating video as a feature, rather than a stand-alone application, and are working to add video capabilities to IP telephony, collaborative Web portals and business data software.

Over the next 24 months, as these video features roll out. enterprises will want to rethink their existing conferencing and collaboration environments in light of this new paradigm and consider the new solutions being offered. Perhaps the most important change will be the possibility that individuals will finally get to use video as easily as they use the phone or email.

Video At The Desktop: Paradigm Shift Ahead

Early desktop videoconferencing systems couldn’t handle ad hoc unscheduled, any-to-any calling. Instead, they operated under the same restrictions as room-based video systems: Calls had to be scheduled, and resources reserved in advance, often requiring operator assistance. When ad hoc calls were attempted, they frequently were not completed, either because the remote party was not there (and no answering machine was available for video callers to leave a message), or the videoconferencing application was not booted on the other PC. or because the PC was involved in a call already, or because the network was simply unable to make the connection. Unless everything was just right, calls didn’t go through and, if they did, the quality was not dependable.

These frustrations derived partly from dependence on the notoriously touchy ISDN, but also from the fact that desktop video was really just room-based video that had been brought down in performance, size, and price-and loaded onto a personal computer.

Most desktop video “systems” of that time consisted of one or more PC plug-in boards, a camera, microphone and speakers. The variety and the complexity of these components, and of the underlying PC hardware, operating system and other software, made every configuration and troubleshooting experience uniquely frustrating.

In contrast, the new desktop paradigm of video-as-a-fcature bases its usage concept on instant messaging (IM) and presence, and its technical foundation on IP networking. IM is fast becoming as common as email, with about 25 percent of casual IM users also using it at work – about double the workplace usage rate of a year ago. The ubiquity of IP in enterprise networks is a crucial foundation for the integration or convergence of video with voice and data into desktop workflow applications that will be easier to use and much more valuable to users.

FIGURE 1 Unified Conferencing

Recent moves by mainstream enterprise vendors demonstrate the importance of this new paradigm. For example:

* Microsoft has partnered with both Radvision and Polycom to enable presence-based rich media conferencing and collaboration tools.

* Cisco has partnered with Tandberg and has acquired Latitude to integrate video with the voice and data conferencing features of its IP-PBX solutions.

* Nortel and Avaya have both chosen Polycom as a strategic partner to bring next-generation video capabilities to their respective unified conferencing solutions.

All these ventures have a common theme-video is a feature that is added on to another application or workflow tools – and these tools use presence and context (more detailed presence status, such as on phone, in-meeting, on video call, do not disturb, at lunch, etc.) as the starting points from which to invoke the video feature. Presence, context and their underlying infrastructure have the potential to change the desktop video experience from scheduled and difficult, to ad hoc and easy, because the call initiator sees who is available before launching the call, knows if the other video device is on and functioning, and places the call by a simple mouse click.

Three Product Approaches

Vendors like Microsoft, Cisco, Avaya, IBM, Nortel, Polycom, Siemens, Alcatel and others in the collaborative communications market are taking one of three different, presence-based approaches to adding video as a feature to their products. While we expect these approaches to remain fairly distinct over the next 18 months, significant crossover will be inevitable as the market develops and matures until all communications devices are fully featured (Figure 1).

* IP Telephony Approach-The PBX is already at the center of most enterprise voice communication systems, so positioning the IP-PBX at the center of a collaborative communications environment will make sense for many enterprises. Taking this approach, Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Nortel and Siemens have been working on making video just one of several media types that IP-PBXs can handle. Their IP- PBXs are being equipped with presence management systems that detect status (off-hook telephones, devices on-line, etc.), and some systems are being integrated with PC calendaring applications so that they know when someone is scheduled to be in a meeting, traveling or on vacation.

The major advantage of this approach is that voice, video and data calls can be launched from the familiar telephone user interface, regardless of whether the user device is a handset, a videophone or a PC-based softphone. In addition, video calls will work like voice calls-including the forward, hold and transfer features, as well as video mail – so users won’t need much training to launch collaborative sessions.

As the IP-PBX world adopts SIP and SIP-like signaling protocols, many videoconferencing endpoint vendors also are adding SIP to their predominantly H.323-based products. SIP support may confer limited interoperability among different vendors’ subsystems, however it is likely that proprietary extensions to SIP-based IP-PBXs will dominate for many years to come.

* Collaboration Portals-The central concept of the collaboration portal is that of a separate application for rich media collaboration. Vendors in this space, with different degrees of presence integration, include Polyeom, WebEx, Microsoft/Radvision, IBM Lotus, FVC and Arel.

Whether server-based and located on the customer premises, or hosted by a service provider, the key portal deliverable will be a single application that uses the presence engine to launch realtime collaboration sessions involving voice, video and data. For example, vendors like Polycom and Radvision are creating applications based on the presence capabilities of Microsoft Live Communication Server: A simple mouse click on one or more names in the buddy list launches a multi-point video and data sharing call. Some portal vendors, such as Webex and FVC, are providing application hooks to enable integration with other workflow tools like Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook (Figure 2).

Next-generation portals will enable so-called mixed device conferences, with some individuals attending on audio-only cell phones, others using the PSTN for voice alongside the Internet for Web conferencing, and still others connected via a variety of videoconferencing endpoints. Unlike the restrictions of the old videoconferencing model, the new portals will not require all users to have special equipment and be connected via highspeed networks.

FIGURE 2 The Presence Engine

If collaboration portals are successful, they will help bring about another important shift in the enterprise. In the past, video- and audio-conferencing services typically have been coordinated by a conferencing department or by individual conferencing specialists. These people, in turn, have been accustomed to dealing with small specialty companies in the conferencing industry. Now that voice and video are migrating to IP, however, conferencing and collaboration are more likely to be positioned as applications running on the enterprise network, and the responsibility for deploying and managing these applications will fall cleanly in the IT domain. Even conference room systems dedicated to video-only calls are making the transition to IP networks and thus falling under IT’s management responsibility.

Of the three video-as-feature approaches, the collaboration portal is closest to the previous desktop videoconferencing model of the mid-1990s. but with some important changes. The portal is easier to use. and it enables mixed-mode meetings, allowing participants to attend using the most convenient and functional device at their disposal: cell phone (for mobile workers), audio h\andset. PC or personal video unit. More importantly, portals will add presence and data sharing to the collaboration session – something that the old model had missed completely, unless users were willing to run two different applications simultaneously.

* Business Process Collaboration-It is hard to imagine users running enterprise software and launching collaboration sessions from within these applications, but this is exactly what Oracle, PcoplcSoft, Siebel, SAP and others are promising for 2006 and beyond. Some of the vendors consider collaboration and rich media communications to be part of the “Web services” trend, and are working to enable them through SIP-compatiblc programming interfaces.

When the results are delivered, the collaboration sessions will likely involve text chat first, with audio, and then video added in that order. Of course, customers will have to purchase the latest revisions of the business process software and install the requisite infrastructure to take advantage of the new features, but, ideally, experienced users of the underlying applications won’t have much to learn to use the new collaboration-enhanced tools.

Vendors are enthusiastic about their IP telephony, portal and business software approaches to collaboration, but some end users are wary. They don’t like the intrusive nature of presence-a key enabling component in all three approaches-which basically tells others where you are, what you are doing and when you are doing it.

Video can be even more intrusive, to the point of actually disrupting workflow if not used judiciously. On the one hand, it could be a real time-saver to be reviewing, say, a customer order, and be able to instantly and directly clarify it with the sales person involved. If you are the sales person, however, you probably will not appreciate being subject to real-time interruptions, or at least requests for interruptions, from anyone reviewing the document.

Advances In Room-Based Video Systems

While enterprise telephony, portal and software players are working to establish a market for desktop collaboration, room-based systems just keep getting better. Vendors have improved their audio and video performance, as well as their form factors and management tools:

* Wideband Audio, Stereo and Speaker Phones-Wideband audio continues to be one of the great benefits of videoconferencing systems over ordinary phone calls, similar to the advantages of FM radio over AM. Using wideband audio and stereo can help reduce meeting fatigue and add realism or naturalism to conference calls. A conference room speakerphone can be used to dial, and it can eliminate the need for a second set of room speakers and microphones.

* Better Video Quality and More Features-The new H.264 video algorithm delivers similar quality to the older H.263 at 50-70 percent of the bandwidth utilization, making TV quality video less disruptive to other applications on the network and less expensive. New systems today also support H.239 (dual streams), enabling participants to see the presenter and the presentation at the same time, often on a single monitor (through dual monitor emulation). And some vendors are providing systems that can use the new flat- screen, high definition TVs.

* New Form Factors-For small meeting rooms and executive offices, where a TV set top or roll-about videoconferencing system would be too big, vendors are now offering small but powerful all-in-one systems as alternatives. They include speakers, cameras, controls and sleek LCD displays. Units like the Tandberg 1000, Polycom VSX 3000, Sony PCS TL-50, and Aethra Maia Star take up little space on the credenza, but deliver excellent performance. For the equipment closets of larger, purpose-built conference rooms, new rack-mounted codecs can provide extremely high performance while supporting multiple cameras and audio subsystems.

* New Management Tools-Today’s room systems typically include an embedded Web server, enabling remote management. Coupled with SNMP error traps and advanced diagnostic tools, remote eall launching and scheduling, these software solutions enable smaller teams of centralized professionals to deploy, manage and monitor ever larger networks of videoconferencing devices.

Conclusion

Enterprise videoconferencing is poised to grow dramatically over the next two to four years. Three factors are working together to make this happen:

First of all, every major enterprise software and hardware vendor is incorporating video into its forthcoming unified communications offerings. These mainstream vendors will make sure that conferencing and collaboration are brought to the attention of every mainstream buyer.

Second, the videoconferencing industry itself continues to make dramatic improvements in price, performance and audio/video quality. Their systems are becoming ever more acceptable to the mainstream buyer who wants TV-quality video, telephone-like ease of use, and 5- 9s reliability.

And finally, video is the right productivity tool for enterprises that must do more with less. Conferencing and collaboration tools can help manage dispersed teams and improve teamwork, while reducing process intervals and time-to-market, as well as cutting travel- related cost and stress

Companies Mentioned In This Article

Aethra (www.aethra.com)

Alcatel (vvvvw.alcatel.com)

Arel (www.arelcom.com)

Avaya (vvvvw.avaya.com)

Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com)

First Virtual Communications (www.fvc.com)

IBM (www.ibm.com)

Microsoft (www.microsoft.com)

Mitel (www.mitel.com)

Nortel (www.nortel.com)

Oracle (www.oracle.com)

Peoplesoft (www.peoplesoft.com)

Polycom (wwvv.polycom.com)

Rad vision (www.radvision.com)

SAP (www.sap.com)

Siebel (www.siebel.com)

Siemens (www.siemens.com)

Sony (www.sony.com)

Tandberg (www.tandbergusa.com)

WebEx (www.vvebex.com)

The new desktop paradigm is to think of video as a feature, not as an application

The collaboration portal comes closest to the desktop video model of the ’90s

Vendors are enthusiastic about their new approaches to collaboration, but end users tend to be wary

Andrew W. Davis is managing partner und E. Brent Kelly is a senior analvsl und partner at Wainhouse Research, a market research and consulting firm specializing in rich media conferencing and real- time collaboration technologies and solutions. They can be reached at andrewwd@wainhouse.com and bkelly@wainhouse.com

Copyright Business Communications Review Nov 2004