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The Video Tipping Point

The question is no longer ‘Why video?’ but rather ‘When video? And how?’ Technology doesn’t just happen. It spreads gradually, sometimes over relatively long periods of time, before breaking through to critical mass and widespread cultural adoption.

For video technology, data suggests, that crossroads moment is now. Face-to-face virtual communication is no longer “down the road.” Quantum leaps in quality, availability, and affordability are quickening the inevitable integration of video applications into everyday life.

“We have in the workforce a generation of X’s and Y’s who are already chat room and videocam savvy. They see this as a very natural way to communicate,” says Michael Zey, a business professor at Montclair State University and author of “The Future Factor.”

“We expect windows on each other. Why wait for a pre-arranged meeting in person if we can see each other now, face-to-face, through a video window?” Zey says. “The ‘tipping point’ is coming today because of the cultural change going on at home and at work.”

Consumers often are canaries in the mineshaft, picking up on new applications at home and then driving them into the workplace. In the case of video adoption, indicators of this cycle are numerous:

Industry leaders such as Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Nortel and Avaya have in recent months integrated video capability with their most popular office applications, a safe bet that this technology is fast moving toward institutionalized “must have” status.

Ever more sophisticated laptops, search engines and 3G phones have all exponentially increased the accessibility and availability of video technology in the consumer space. “Advancements like 3G-based videoconferencing, SIP and IP-based videoconferencing are propelling videoconferencing towards mainstream adoption …” (Frost &Sullivan, 06/05)

Worldwide sales of PC cameras have grown from 2.9 million units in 1999 to 18 million units in 2004, an average growth of 44 percent per year, according to IDC research.

Logitech, a leading provider of video hardware, reports sales are up by 32 percent over last year. The company recently reached a pair of milestones, surpassing 25 million in webcam sales and hosting 2.3 billion video instant messaging sessions by users of MSN Messenger. (Logitech Earnings Report, Spring 2005)

The videoconferencing industry overall has experienced 30 percent growth over the last two years. (Wainhouse Research, Spring 2005)

A recent study finds that nearly half of all employees polled said they travel for work less frequently than they did five years ago, with 27 percent indicating they travel “much less” frequently. “Many firms are capitalizing on less costly communications channels, such as webcasts and videoconferences, to facilitate management and information sharing between remote parties.” (Robert Half Management Resources, July 12, 2005)

Broadband is now in more than 60 million homes and that number is growing significantly every day. This increased capacity means greater access to high-quality video technology at the desktop.

The ratio of desktop videoconferences taking place over the Internet versus old-style, dedicated conference rooms has shifted dramatically, with 92 percent of personal videoconferences taking place from the desktop in 2004. (Frost & Sullivan Report, 2005)

Apple recently created buzz with the launch of its popular iSight camera, which has found traction among such consumers as new immigrants with family overseas; military families with relatives in Afghanistan and Iraq; extended families looking for Grandma to connect with grandchildren or college students to stay in touch with home.

Consumer-driven adoption cycles are nothing new. Video integration is likely just following a path similar to numerous other technologies piloted in the home, then transported by workers into the office.

Spreadsheets, instant messaging, handheld computers and wireless devices all caught on first among home users. Even the PC itself got its start on the grassroots level before migrating to the workplace.

“The consumer-phenomenon sets up expectations and behavior that drive business-computing behavior as well,” according to a March 2005 article in DataBases Trends and Applications. “We can expect adoption of computing technology in the consumer market to continue to impact the data center and corporate network.”

Young people especially have come of age in a highly instantaneous, visual world filled with cell phone and Blackberry connectivity, online dating and pervasive reality programming. Everyone is accessible and being on-camera isn’t at all unusual.

“The future of media will be shaped by media access platforms that are all the rage with the kids … who can type with their thumbs and juggle six IM conversations while riding a skateboard and stealing MP3’s from the Internet,”says a recent piece in Cablefax Daily. “(They) are the prime movers in a trend toward taking video out of home and hearth and putting it in handheld devices–phones, PDAs, the works.”

Echoes of this mainstream consumer adoption are evident in the workplace, where employees find desktop videoconferencing provides cost, time and travel savings, as well as significantly improved quality of communications and decision-making.

Whether bridging cultural gaps with outsourced vendors, leveraging in-house resources, reducing expenses or fostering deeper trust relationships in the field, enterprise-quality video is increasingly critical in a global business environment.

Collaborative desktop video provides an important measure of safety in a fluid workplace. Recent events such as the New York transit strike, advent of bird flu and paralyzing weather have brought the concept of business continuity management to the forefront for IT managers. Video provides a flexible alternative form of communications in a world where process redundancy can save substantial time and dollar expenditures in the management of stressful work disruptions and dislocated workers.

Just as anyone who starts a new job has come to expect an e-mail address, as well as perhaps a cell phone or corporate IM interface, industry experts believe collaborative video applications are fast on their way to becoming an essential component of any enterprise toolkit.

Hard numbers are difficult to pin down because the industry is in flux, with a lot of proprietary activity taking place in the areas of software distribution and overseas installation.

But analyst Ira Weinstein, who tracks the video sector for Wainhouse Research, recently said growth has been steady with intermittent surges, especially in the last 18 months. He predicts continued momentum spurred by the related spread of collaborative Internet Protocol-based applications in the enterprise.

John Carlson is vice president of marketing for Avistar Communications (www.avistar.com).

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