Face it — who needs video calling?


Date: 24 February 2011

Train fares are astronomical and petrol is £1.25 per litre. Fortunately, it’s possible for people to collaborate — and salesmen to meet clients — via audio and web conferencing services. Hurrah! But hang on — what about that other form of conferencing technology?

Video conferencing has been on the market for the last fourteen years, but uptake among SMEs remains poor. Despite manufacturers’ best efforts, SMEs have bypassed it in favour of its conferencing cousins, audio and web, or are showing little enthusiasm for it. Why?  

Audio killed the video star

For small firms, the answer lies in the arcane standards and expensive kit that, until now, have made video conferencing something of a luxury purchase. The value of video is easier to quantify in large multinationals, where savings on air fares can be substantial.

Smaller businesses, by contrast, are only likely to be using video if they have a special need, such as using sign language to communicate or getting instant feedback on prototypes. Otherwise, an audio conference call — or web conference for presentation purposes — is a perfectly adequate alternative.  

2011 — video goes viral

2011 could be different, though — and here’s why: Most video conferencing services are now conducted over the open internet, so there’s no need for separate ISDN lines, extra call costs or desktop boxes. What’s more, those shopping for new kit will find that many new laptops come with front facing cameras and the necessary video calling software.

More importantly, perhaps, are the many tablet PCs launching this year, all with video call capabilities built in. Then there’s the ongoing smart phone revolution which has just seen Skype introduce video calling over 3G networks, and Apple promoting its proprietary FaceTime software on the iPhone 4 (albeit restricted to use over Wi-Fi, at least for now).

So the stars appear to be aligning. In 2011, video calling will be available on all sorts of device — PC-to-PC, mobile-to-mobile, and computer-to-mobile. It might just be worth evaluating the potential benefits of face-to-face video conferencing in your business. And if you do, here’s my prediction...  

You won’t countenance it

Unless you have a specialist requirement, you probably won’t bother with video. For one thing, who needs the grief? A face looking at another face makes perfect sense when it’s what’s actually happening in the real world, but — on screen, and on camera? Suddenly you’re an actor giving a performance.

You gesticulate, nod, smile, grimace or gurn in some other way to animate your face in time with the conversation. Every nervous tic, or each moment of excessive eye contact, has the potential to be grotesquely accentuated or misinterpreted. Who needs that?

Some SMEs will doubtless experiment as costs drop and the kit becomes standard issue, but perhaps video conferencing was always destined for the living room instead of the office. Interacting on screen with a friend or relative is a completely different proposition.

Then again, even at home there are limitations. If I simply phone a friend or relative, we can have a perfectly productive conversation while changing clothes, drawing up a shopping list or putting the kettle on. On a video call, we’d be forced to, well, stare at each other. And that’s just weird.

So there you have it. Despite the shiny new kit, 2011 will NOT be the year in which video conferencing finally rocks the small business world. Now look me in the eye and tell me I’m wrong.

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