Video Conferencing is a Solved Problem and Why That Changes Everything
As some will already know I’ve been in the Video Conferencing quite a while. My first video conference was in 1991, I got fired from Harvard Graphics after Microsoft took the market with Powerpoint, and in 1992, I sold my first Video conferencing solution to a client while living in Australia. These were $100k+ dedicated solutions.
With 5 years at Polycom during the rise of the ViewStation and 12 years as part of the original team at Lifesize, I’ve seen a lot of changes in the video conferencing space.
Back in the early 90s, we used 2x ISDN (It Still Does Nothing) digital telephone circuits, and by the early 2000s the Internet was becoming a viable delivery method.
When High Definition Video Conferencing was first solved by Lifesize starting in 2003 we were working on the absolute limit with what could be achieved. In 2005, when we brought the world’s first HD Video Conferencing solution to market, it changed what success looked like completely. It was an Excession Event for the world of Standard Definition CIF-based Video Conferencing.
Video Conferencing is easy, now
Last week a potential new supplier of Video Conferencing solutions showed me their product. At first glance it was amazing. It produced HD images, the audio worked great, they had data sharing and instead of the $20k plus price we were charging for hardware-based video conferencing just a few years ago, they were touting this solution as being from $1 a month per user. I had them talk me through their solution and it had all the components one would want: multiway calls, recording, audio add in and all for pennies a month.
It was then that it struck me. Video Conferencing is in effect a solved problem. What was close to impossible just 10 years ago even for dedicated hardware is now trivial for a PC with a good quality camera like the Logitech CC-3000 or others from numerous suppliers. Even the multi $100k infrastructure devices are now likely to be cloud based and a few orders of magnitude less expensive. The secret magic has been dispelled.
Moore’s law from impossible to trivial in 10 years
All of this is inevitable when the 2x every 2 years power of Moore’s law is focused on a problem. In 5 years, things are 10x better, in 10 years, 100x better. Effectively problems go from impossible to trivial in 10 years.
If you look closely a huge number of UC products have video conferencing built in. They often don’t even bother telling their clients that it exists. I think I understand the reason. It’s not because they don’t have perfectly acceptable technologies, it’s because they have not as yet worked out how to integrate these narratives into their sales propositions.
That got me thinking. What does success look like for the Video Conferencing vendors these days, how do they differentiate themselves and what are users actually looking for?
What does success look like now?
To be successful vendors need to solve a specific business problem the client has. What that means in practise is of course extremely variable, fitting into existing business process dynamics and workflows seems key. As a result technology that empowers users to either gain a positive advantage with a new way of working or expand a present workflow are the most powerful.
Examples of this would be the ease of use of the direct dial to anything features of Starleaf systems, or the powerful integration to applications such as Slack that Zoom.us offers.
Another differentiation is the ability to connect practically anything to anything with Cloud offerings like Videxio or Blue Jeans Networks, or for clients looking for something they control themselves solutions from Pexip and Acano might well be the right choice.
Or for a different take, how video can be seamlessly integrated into a Microsoft Skype for Business environment or as an augmentation to the telephone paradigm of the Cisco Call Manager environment.
There is no one answer and no one winner.
Increasingly having a high quality video conferencing solution is simply not enough. To be successful vendors need to differentiate themselves clearly from their competition and solve a client problem. Quality is useful but above a certain quality other considerations become more important.
NetFlix and Blu Ray, convenience is King
I call this effect the Netflix paradox. DVDs sold extremely well and dominated for many years after the demise of VHS. There was a clear advantage in both convenience and quality that DVDs enabled. However, by the time the war over the DVD standard was finally over, streaming services, primarily pushed by Netflix had made good, but not great quality video even more convenient.
Netflix has beaten Blu Ray not because the quality was better. Blu Ray is better quality, and obviously so if the technologies are shown together, however Netflix quality is good enough for most people most of the time. Video Conferencing is the same, partly because convenience is king and partly because very few people ever compare them back to back.
So vendors need to ensure they offer a defensible position. One in which the user experience is radically better in some way that goes beyond a non differentiable quality.
Some vendors are pushing an integrated room system along with cloud-based infrastructure approach. A tightly integrated hardware codec and service has some appeal for users and it’s certainly a differentiated offering. However the lack of flexibility, the increased cost and reliance on the vendor to always be there and continually keeping up to date produces serious challenges. Many clients will simply not want to be so reliant on a single point of failure nor such an inflexible solution.
Although there is some merit to this as a strategy, the modern incarnation of room-based USB cameras from Logitech, Vaddio and others are having strong downward pressure on pricing for these solutions, and clients are questioning the value of equipping a few high end rooms where for the same price they might equip every room with cameras and microphone arrays and let the users bring the codec (laptop device and Software Codec) of their choice and simply scale up an experience they are already familiar with from their desktops.
IT departments are losing control
Traditionally IT or in the bigger organizations the dedicated Video Conferencing managers decided the company's strategy. However with many applications increasingly running in the Cloud the days of the IT Hegemon are over and departments are implementing the solutions of their choosing on the basic infrastructure provided by the IT group. As a result flexibility is becoming ever more important. This will affect how organizations purchase, manage and maintain the solutions.
Lessons from Whiteboards
Electronic Whiteboarding technology has been both a hugely successful market and a total flop. In cases where a designated user has control and constant use of a technology it has been wildly successful. So in as an example in Schools whiteboards have been very successful. However in the corporate space where users are unlikely to be the only users and therefore much less likely to be familiar with the technology they have failed badly. This appears to be changing as the technology becomes more intuitive with companies like Smart Technologies and Prysm leading the charge, but remains an issue for many.
The Video Conferencing world can be seen in much the same way. Users familiar with the technology are much more likely to use it. Traditionally that meant a few dedicated users who were prepared to work through the pain of learning it who then became the power users. This is changing with users now getting familiar with desktop and mobile solutions before using the same User Interface as they walk into meeting rooms. It enables them to get familiar without the risks.
Jerry Seinfeld stated, “If it’s true that most people are more afraid of public humiliation than they are of death, then most people would rather be in the box then give the eulogy at a funeral.”
Traditionally video conferencing has been a great way to feel humiliated in front of peers, customers and colleagues. The growth of desktop which is then transformed to a room solution when required should lower the stress levels significantly and grow the use of the technology considerably.
Beyond a certain level it’s not about the call quality
Clients need to now look beyond simply the quality of a single call, and instead consider how flexible and scaleable a solution is.
Is it better to take off the shelf room-based cameras and microphone arrays and deploy the latest and greatest codec of choice, or employ the concept of BYOSC (Bring Your Own Software Codec)? Moving forward I believe flexibility is one of the most important criteria for a successful ongoing deployment. Others may well think differently and will therefore have different success criteria.
I have spoken to many clients who either cannot decide, or choose not to decide what the best Video Conferencing solution for their users will be. They believe in enabling the meeting rooms to empower the users to scale up the desktop experience and let them bring whatever software client they feel like using.
Another consideration is the client's ecosystem. Traditionally Video Conferencing was built around solving internal communications problems. Moving out of the realm of internal communications and into the supply chain is something that companies like Videxio and Blue Jeans Networks have done a fantastic job in. Increasingly users are going to use different solutions with different clients, and it is much better to let the internal client decide rather than have the IT department attempt to impose a solution.
What we can learn from the Cell phone world? Video Conferencing as an App
Today the quality of a voice call on a smartphone is barely even mentioned. Telephony is considered a solved problem, even though in some respects the quality of the dedicated cell phones of 15 years ago could be argued to be better.
Simplicity the Ultimate sophistication.
Leonardo Da Vinci.
Today the Smartphone market is all about the apps. The video conferencing world is going in much the same way. The days of dedicated, expensive, one vendor, with one use case, type technologies are going away.
Increasingly users are looking for mass deployable, good quality solutions for everything from boardrooms to huddle rooms, that empower them to change vendors, codecs, use cases and workflows whenever they want.
The traditional Video Conferencing market is dying, but the opportunity for Video Conferencing for millions of people to communicate is exploding.
Personally I’ve never been so excited about the opportunity for Video Communications technology to positively impact millions of people's lives but I’m also certain that the game has changed, the business models that got us here won't get us to the next stage. I think a flexible approach is the key to success and it will be interesting to see how all the vendors react.
About the Author: Simon Dudley
I’m a contrarian. I make a habit of being the guy who questions the orthodoxy, the guy who doesn’t believe it just because the good and the great said it’s true. Even when it’s a bad idea I can’t help but speak up. This has not always been good for my career, but it’s generally been very good for my employers and clients if they are prepared to listen.
My Book, The End of Certainty "How to thrive when playing by the rules is a losing strategy", explains why groupthink and the doing what you’ve always done is no longer the right move.
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