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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Video... so just how important is it really?

I'm sitting at Cisco's analyst event in the US at the moment. The various execs presenting have been trying to hammer two themes into the heads of several hundred analysts sitting in the audience - video, and collaboration.

The collaboration theme fits into Cisco's acquisition of WebEx. It put up some fairly persuasive examples & demos of this yesterday - talking up the potential to improve productivity in large businesses. It also eats its own dogfood in realigning its own business processes around interactive, collaborative teams.

While I personally detest using the type of online presentation tools that's one of the more familiar faces of WebEx (just send me the Powerpoint by email, please, and talk it through on the phone), I can certainly appreciate the benefits for internal corporate collaboration for large businesses. There's also a lot of cool Web 2.0 stuff they're talking about like Wikis, blogs etc. Basically Intranet 2.0 stuff, which makes a lot of sense (eg submitting business opportunity suggestions & getting them rated / favourited).

The video message is a little less clear. Despite attempts to claim "no, it's not just about driving IP traffic up the curve & selling more routers" I'm really unconvinced. Obviously, IP video is important in IPTV (hence Cisco's Scientific Atlanta acquisition). And Cisco's high-def Telepresence corporate videoconferencing gear is very impressive. And lastly there is a lot of sense in networking up CCTV cameras via IP.

But I simply do not buy the argument that video-based communications will become pervasive, and will be used in a large percentage of total person-to-person interactions. This is actually a bit reminiscent of Ericsson's attempts to shoehorn video into mobile handsets, either in the past through the useless H324 videotelephony approach, and again now now with the over-complex IMS Multimedia Telephony standard.

My belief is that each individual's (or company's) communications will become fragmented. Sure, certain business-to-business sales calls, or internal product planning meetings, among technology-savvy (and technology-happy) people will benefit from telepresence. But other instances will not - if I'm in a cab late for a meeting, I'll use SMS. I can see almost no business reason for me to use video - for me personally, it adds little beyond voice, and I much prefer face-to-face meetings with my clients for a host of reasons. Mobile video for business is an even more unlikely proposition, unless I'm sitting in an airport watching YouTube or maybe a business webcast on my PC.

The irony is that increasing mobility of employees works precisely against the use of video in the enterprise. It is inceasingly likely that one party in a given call will be driving, walking, out of coverage, roaming, using an incompatible phone, in a different timezone and so on.

Of course, Cisco doesn't have a major presence in mobile devices & cellular networks, so in an ideal world perhaps Cisco would actually like people to get back to their desks and offices, and be connected with a big fat LAN. Given their comments about the travel savings associated with telepresence, it wouldn't surprise me to see a green argument expounded in the future, about the "evils" of corporate mobility.

In fact, I see this as emblematic of a much wider long-term battle between the world's too most important communications technologies - 3GPP GSM/UMTS cellular vs. Ethernet. I think that's another theme for 2008, although I don't expect too many people to admit it openly.

3 comments:

alex said...

Great analysis about video.

Slightly disagree about collaboration. Mailing powerpoint and manually stepping through on the phone is impractical in large corporations (leads to overloaded email storage) who run large meetings (presenter needs to announce on which slide they are).
This becomes very clear when the collaboration tools breaks down.

User perceived reliability and availability of these tools is in my experience an unmet need. (I have not used WebEx, maybe that one works flawlessly.)

Alex

Peter Csathy, CEO, SightSpeed Inc. said...

Dean, to answer your question directly -- IP video communications is extremely important. Why? Because, unlike any other form of communications over the Internet (i.e., voice and text), video communications adds the previously missing "human" or "personal" element to such communications.

To be clear, I agree with you that nothing replaces a face to face meeting with someone physically in the the same room. But, IP video communications -- so long as it is drop dead easy to use and high quality -- is really the next best thing to being there. And, IP video communications really does cut down the need to meet "physically" in that same room (thereby reducing travel and commuting stress, giving you more time with your family, etc.)

Not convinced yet? Let me give you some real world examples.

I have been running my Berkeley-based company for over two years predominantly from my home office in San Diego. How have I been able to effectively do this? By using video communications. In other words, I eat my own dogfood as it were.

Video gives me the power to hold face to face meetings with my team for several hours a day (yes, several hours per day) and effectively meet eye to eye. We are fully focused on such video calls with each other and not multi-tasking, as we would be if we were having a voice only conference call).

Even more importantly, however, video has enabled me to build my relationships with my team over these past few years in a way that voice or text never could. Face to face matters -- and, when you can't be there, video really works.

Another example that hits close to home. My engineering team in Berkeley is required to be in the office only two days per week. Yet, they still effectively -- very effectively -- collaborate together. How? Via video communications. Voice and text simply would not empower this type of freedom.

Yes, these two examples relate directly to our business. But, the points raised above work in all contexts -- for both the consumer and the business user. For consumers separated by geographic distance, video keeps them connected in a way that nothing else could. Imagine the soldier separated by his family over the holidays. You get the poiont.

The business user is the same thing. Teams are increasingly separated by geographic distance -- not to mention business partners and customers -- and video adds the same "personal" or "human" touch that nothing else can. We work in remote offices, home offices, Starbucks. We need to still connect and collaborate. Video uniquely empowers this.

Finally, while telepresence at hundreds of thousands of dollars may work for a privileged few companies, it simply is not an option for the other 99% of businesses. This is where fully portable video communications solutions enter into the picture.

And, video communications must be having some kind of impact on the world. Let's not forget that virtually every PC manufacturer (Dell, Apple, HP, Acer, Toshiba) -- and several CE manufactuers -- are now embedding webcams directly into the hardware across all of their product lines. Why? Specifically to enable video communications.

Yes, I am bullish on video communications. Not just because I run a video communications company. But, like hair club for men, because I am -- and have been -- as user for several years.
I have seen the power of it ... and I am a passionate believer.

Peter Csathy, CEO, SightSpeed Inc. said...

One more thing to add for those who are curious -- I use the term "video communications" in the singular (because it is one concept, even if it sounds plural).