Videoconferencing creeps toward the home

Teleworkers, don't start dressing for the office camera just yet.

While desktop videoconferencing is enjoying heightened interest in corporations, its tentacles will be slow to reach at-home workers, according to experts.

The limiting factors include availability of bandwidth, security, management and cultural issues that make the technology a hard sell beyond corporate headquarters. But recent advancements, most notably affordable, plug-and-play desktop videoconferencing units, have made wiring PCs for sight and sound much easier. Because the technology moves over IP using the H.323 standard, it's Internet -- and thus remote worker -- ready. But even companies that rely heavily on videoconferencing are evaluating desktop systems on a case-by-case basis.

Glen Miller, global manager for video communications for Pharmacia, has been deploying conference room videoconferencing systems for 20 years. The 10th- largest pharmaceutical company, Pharmacia has 60,000 employees spread across 60 countries, and as such deems videoconferencing its "global productivity tool" for conducting geographically dispersed meetings. On opening its new headquarters in Peapack, N.J., the company equipped the facility's 56 conference rooms for video, bringing the company's total number of video-equipped meeting rooms to 300.

Even so, Miller has deployed only 100 desktop video systems, and only a half dozen of those to home workers, mostly executives or researchers.

Wiring the at-home workers was a chore, Miller says. Because the company only works with digital systems, Miller and his staff had to make sure workers could provision ISDN service. Then they had to visit each worker's home to set up the system. "We only give it to those people who show a business need," he says.

While the availability of DSL and cable services is helping spur market growth, several factors still prevent desktop videoconferencing from reaching its potential, says Christine Perey, president of Perey Consulting, which focuses on the videoconferencing market. "[Asymmetric DSL] has a low-bandwidth upload that means poor video performance," Perey says.

Another issue is that desktop videoconferencing is intrusive, and participants are too small on the screen. "It's too close for what is considered normal personal space," Perey says. "And while I believe in the long-term viability of videoconferencing, I don't think it is going to happen in a two-inch [square] window."

However, viability is being boosted by new features and falling prices. Recently, desktop videoconferencing market leaders Polycom and VCon each introduced Universal Serial Bus plug-and-play units, and Sorenson Technologies also offers a USB unit called EnVision.

"With USB, you no longer have to crack open the computer case and install a PCI card in the PC," says VCon's Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Gordon Daugherty.

Last month, VCon also introduced its Media Xchange Manager, a server-based product that provides video call transfer, forwarding and call pick-up, as well as banddwidth management features.

Falling prices also are an enticement. VCon's Vigo is $700. The ViaVideo from Polycom is priced at $600. Sorenson's unit is $900.

"Just two years ago, desktop systems were priced from $3,000 to $7,000," says Bill Blagdan, Polycom's director of product marketing for emerging technologies. "The big problem with teleworkers is that they don't feel a part of what's going on at the office. Videoconferencing can put them back in the office."

But the positive developments are tempered by IT issues, including the need for network address translation to establish a static IP address. Dynamic IP addressing doesn't work because an IP address is like a phone number, and it would be chaos if it were constantly changing. Security concerns center on opening firewall ports to allow H.323 video traffic. There also are management issues, especially allocating bandwidth and policing video traffic.

Research done by Perey Consulting tells the story. Nearly 80,000 desktop units were sold to the enterprise last year, representing $53 million in revenue. By 2004, the market will only grow to 170,000 units shipped and $80 million in revenue.

"Desktop videoconferencing still has a lot of growing up to do. Right now, users have to show a compelling need," Perey says.

This story, "Videoconferencing creeps toward the home" was originally published by Network World.

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