Desktop videoconferencing has been on the horizon for a couple of years now, but all of a sudden there are some systems that have a price/ performance combination that opens up new, wide marketsOne of the nice things about this industry is that for every technology or product type that becomes a commodity item, or even obsolete, another pops up to replace it. Anyone getting in at the right time can possibly do well financially, though there's an equal chance that you'll lose money.
Now that desktop videoconferencing is taking off, one important question is, how much effort do you need to put into it in order to sell the product, or should we say, "solutions"? This isn't one technology or application, but a wide range, with markets such as corporate communications, video broadcasting, education and home use. The technologies include low-cost video cameras, new video input cards, parallel port video input, hardware video compression, software video compression and Internet software.
The bad news at the moment is that many of these systems are incompatible with each other, or at least only partly compatible. While there is a chance that systems can be brought up to date (read: compatible) as standards develop, it's hard to give buyers a guarantee. Some observers believe that software-based applications have a better chance of future compatibility. This is especially true as processor speed increases, making software-based compression and signal handling easier to carry out.
The markets open to resellers range from the inexpensive, shrink-wrapped retail solution, through various levels of value-add, right up to bespoke videoconferencing systems that integrate with existing or planned networking, communications or Internet/intranet projects.
As with many new computer-related technologies, these products aren't just a single, fixed application, but are able to be put to as many uses as you have customers. In some cases you'll be the one inventing the applications, and in others it will be the buyer. For instance, a simple $300 video camera could be used for gathering pictures for a catalogue; creating staff ID cards; showing a remote person what something looks like; creating videomail; videoconferencing; monitoring unattended offices; babysitting; adding an extra dimension to a presentation; producing a video newsletter or staff greeting; and so on.
An example of the shrinkwrap product is the Australian developed CAMWIZ Works bundle. It comes with a colour video camera and parallel port interface, and all the software needed to allow it to operate either as a straight video camera, or as a video messaging or videoconferencing system. At $450 RRP it is affordable for the customer yet requires little or no knowledge or effort from the reseller.
Another Australian product, this time from Megavision International, takes a slightly different route. It's a software package called CAMCOM.com. This product is also available with a range of hardware to suit the user. A typical high-spec bundle has an RRP of $1,400 including software, high-end multimedia card and video camera. The Megavision solution also has software enabling it to act as an Internet video broadcast station or receiver.
At the turnkey end of the market, PictureTel has a $17,000 box of tricks that doesn't even need a computer. You operate it by taking it out of the box, plugging it into a TV and ISDN socket, and turning on the power. It's that simple.
But back to the low-cost, PC-based end of the market. Because we're in the early days of this technology, there are many incompatible standards: for control software; for picture size and quality; for video and audio compression techniques; and for establishing connections, both on and off the Internet.
One standard that does seem to be emerging is Microsoft's NetMeeting product, which can either be an audioconference tool, an audio plus videoconferencer or even include application sharing, whiteboard, cooperative notetaking and so on. The CAMWIZ product has been endorsed by Microsoft and is featured on the NetMeeting Internet page as a hot product. As far as camera hardware goes, it is unlikely that any equipment will be unusable as standards emerge and change. More likely, the software will change to suit.
Still, only a foolish reseller would tell a customer that there was a 100 per cent guarantee that any particular package would not need to be updated to make it forward compatible.
Megavision International's Rudie Hoess told ARN that he'd been ready for the videoconferencing boom for years now, and only waiting for the rest of the industry to catch up in terms of functionality and price. He believes that we now have appropriate communications (Internet, dial-up, networking and ISDN), compression standards and methods (in his case, JMPEG) and hardware.
At a recent demonstration in Megavision International's offices we saw Hoess take off-air TV signals and broadcast them onto the Internet so that anyone could receive them in reasonable quality, anywhere in the world. We also saw Hoess's sidekick Tom Cooper dial into his home and switch between various video sources such as a couple of security video cameras and his pay TV decoder.