The cheapest possible solution is CU-SeeMe, a freeware product developed by Cornell University's Information Technology organisation that runs videoconferences over the Internet. Commercial versions are in the works, but for now, the picture quality and lack of security make CU-SeeMe a dubious choice for corporate use.
Intel's Video Phone and Corel's CorelVideo are significant improvements for POTS (plain old telephone systems) products. Intel's new technology is expected to cut the cost of videoconferencing capability down to the $500 range.
The drawback of POTS products is that the picture quality typically is poor. That can also be a problem with videoconferencing over the faster Ethernet lines usually found in corporate LANs. Video is a bandwidth hog - when video transmissions get into a shoving match with other network traffic, they raise concerns for the integrity of both. Several solutions are being researched. Router vendor Cisco Systems is working with other companies to support the Resource Reservation Protocol (RSVP), which guarantees a certain amount of pipeline for the videoconferencing data stream.
Out on a limb
The next step is to use expensive, higher-bandwidth network technologies like ISDN. The good news here is that you might not have to pay an arm and a leg. One limb will probably suffice.
Still, once videoconferencing moves out of the local loop to the WAN, performance problems can crop up. Desktop videoconferencing requires a lot of patience, integration and fine-tuning. The quality can be very good in the LAN context, but in the wide area you can still see a lot of disconcerting delay in the picture. That would give your next long-distance business meeting roughly the same flavour as a poorly dubbed foreign movie.
Experts and users predict that business use of desktop videoconferencing will explode in the next two to four years, and they are warning information systems managers to be prepared. Some estimates say a quarter of all PCs will have a video camera attached by the year 2000.
Compaq has begun bundling video and audio communications capabilities from Intel on the motherboard of its computers, and it won't be much longer before small desktop cameras are a standard part of most PCs.