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Oh, Say Can You See?
Industry standards and greater ease of use are gaining videoconferencing the popularity that many think it deserves.
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No matter how powerful a technology may be, it's of no use unless it has applications that meet your specific needs. The good news is that there are dozens of ways to use videoconferencing in a typical sales organization.

For one thing, it can be a powerful tool for selling to high-level decision-makers. Face-to-face video communications send a more effective message than anything possible with a telephone or printed materials. When a crisis occurs, videoconferencing lets sales managers take personal control of the situation anywhere in the world during its critical early moments.

Videoconferencing is especially effective in international communications. It's usually best to introduce yourself to key partners, customers and vendors at a face-to-face meeting. But when you're maintaining existing relationships that span distant parts of the globe, videoconferencing can be far more satisfying than an audio-only medium. Furthermore, when time-zone differences make it impossible to hold real-time communications, videomail applications-which let you insert a compressed video recording of yourself into an e-mail message-can make it possible for partners to communicate at their own convenience. They enable company representatives to send a timely, personal message that would be impossible with any other communications mechanism.

Teleconferences are effective platforms for events like sales-force conferences, customer forums, product launches and press conferences. Many organizations have used them effectively at tradeshows, and the technology has proven itself a powerful mechanism for training customers, OEMs and sales reps. Videoconferencing also is a great way to cost-effectively deliver internal presentations, seminars and product demos, and it simplifies tasks like distributing benefits and policies information, conducting multisite staff meetings, recruiting and interviewing new hires, designing and reviewing sales literature, negotiating and signing contracts and reviewing proposals. It's also a powerful morale-building tool that can help reduce the feeling of isolation often cited by remote sales offices and telecommuters.

Implementation Challenges
Implementing a videoconferencing system was once a major effort that meant months of planning and required skill in fields as diverse as telecommunications, video production, facilities planning, data communications, user training and acoustics. Videoconferencing systems required specially prepared meeting rooms that were much like small television studios, as well as custom communications setups that usually involved high-speed leased communications lines or a satellite link.

A big part of the problem was a lack of standardization. It wasn't until the early 1990s-after nearly 10 years of false starts-that the International Telecommunications Union finalized H.320, the first open videoconferencing standard. Until then, no teleconferencing system could communicate with equipment manufactured by another vendor. Over the last decade, the ITU has continued to create additional standards that are now finally spawning affordable, truly open enterprise solutions. Executive boardroom systems that once cost a half-million dollars now sell for $20,000 to $30,000 and personal videophones can be had for well under $200.

In comparison to a few years ago, installing one of today's systems is relatively tame. Videoconferencing systems have become a lot less choosy about their environment, and most work nicely in any well-lit conference room with decent acoustics. Thanks in part to the latest ITU standards, you can connect sites through ISDN lines, ATM networks, conventional dial-up analog phone lines, intranets or LANs. With the right plug-ins, you can also use a standard Web browser to conference over the Internet. Even the once-nightmarish task of setting up an ISDN line is now fairly simple, thanks to the establishment of ready-to-go, video-friendly line configurations that can be ordered in just a few minutes.

Functionality and ease of use also have improved dramatically. Most systems offer intuitive Windows interfaces that let you set up conferences with just a few clicks. Even the most basic systems include data-conferencing capabilities that let participants at remote sites jointly annotate documents in a special whiteboard window. Other popular data-conferencing features allow attendees to exchange files, type messages in a private chat area and even share third-party applications to simultaneously edit documents stored at only one site.

Setting up multipoint conferences (which connect more than two sites) has also gotten much easier. H.320-compliant multipoints once had to be scheduled weeks in advance and required a telephone carrier equipped with a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar device called a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU). But today, companies can attach small inhouse MCUs to their own network backbones for less than $10,000. Better yet, the H.323 standard for videoconferencing over packet data networks includes built-in multipoint capabilities, so any firm that has already installed a client-server H.323 conferencing system ought to be able to hold multipoints without additional equipment. Mainstream H.323 conferencing packages like White Pine's CU-SeeMe and MeetingPoint offerings even let you set up multipoints on the fly by simply clicking buttons on a public Web site.

"The diversity of today's teleconferencing industrygives the technology such flexibility-ease of use and functionality have improved dramatically."

Something for Everyone
Today's videoconferencing market is broken into several segments. At the high end are the traditional group-oriented systems such as PictureTel's Venue and Concorde lines (list prices range from $15,000 to $30,000, depending on configuration). These are larger pieces of equipment that accommodate groups of people seated around a conference table and are often installed as permanent fixtures in corporate boardrooms and meeting centers. Most offer flexible interface options that let them easily connect to enterprise networks, LANs, digital phone lines and wide-area networks. Virtually all support H.320-compliant videoconferencing over ISDN and Switched 56 communications lines.

A more recent innovation is the compact room system, such as Intel's Teamstation ($10,000 list). Designed for smaller groups, these offerings may be only a little larger than a VCR (excluding monitors and a PC) and are usually tightly integrated with an attached Windows PC. They're designed for flexibility and ease of use and may support both H.320 and H.323.

Single-user desktop systems run $750 to $1,500 and consist of a PC configured with an add-in interface, application software and possibly a codec board. You can also find less-expensive add-in kits that let you upgrade an existing PC to a videoconferencing workstation. All desktops offer H.320 compatibility, and a few also support H.323. But most lack the picture quality and flexibility of pricier group systems. Although many vendors have dropped out of this market in the last few years, companies like Intel, Zydacron and PictureTel still market offerings in this category.

At the bottom of the food chain are the videophones, most of which are sold either as add-in kits for PCs or as inexpensive software-only applications intended for video-ready computers. The kits include a camera, a video-friendly V.34/V.80 modem and software that conforms to the H.324 standard for videoconferencing over analog phone lines. Many also support a subset of H.323 that lets them conference over the Internet. These devices have met with limited success in the consumer market, but have little application in the business world due to their mediocre video quality and inability to interface with corporate networks.

A more recent development is non-H.323 Internet/intranet-based videoconferencing. These products and online services use streaming audio and video technologies like RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2 to connect anyone equipped with a standard Web browser and the appropriate plug-ins. One example is Lotus' LearningSpace distance-learning system, which uses Lotus' Notes and Domino platforms to distribute video-enabled electronic courseware. Students need PCs equipped with only Notes client software or a 4.0-class browser. Lucent Technology's OneMeeting Solution is an Internet-based service that lets up to six people participate in voice/data teleconferences by simply accessing a Lucent Web site. In both cases, no specialized videoconferencing hardware or software is required. By the time you read this, other vendors, including Polycom, PictureTel and VTEL, will have announced streaming-media offerings that provide conferencing or distance-learning capabilities to anyone with a Web browser.

stay-at-Home Meetings
If all these options seem a bit mind-boggling, don't fret. It's precisely the diversity of today's teleconferencing industry that gives the technology such flexibility. Videoconferencing won't make business trips or telephone calls obsolete-a teleconference will never match the immediacy of face-to-face communications or the convenience of picking up a phone-but it does provide a third alternative with its own unique advantages and often makes more sense than either hopping on a plane or playing phone tag.

Despite popular misconceptions, the most important benefit you can expect from a videoconferencing system isn't always lower travel expenses. In many cases, you'll profit even more from a dramatic decrease in travel-related productivity losses. Business travel interrupts employees' normal work habits, causes jet lag and stress, and forces workers to waste time completing tedious expense reports. In extreme cases, workers may take days to return to full productivity after attending a conference in a distant time zone. Furthermore, even the task of making travel and hotel reservations usually consumes more time and resources than it does to arrange a videoconference. When it's important to hold a meeting quickly, teleconferencing is the logical choice.

Videoconferences are conducted on home turf in an atmosphere that's familiar and comfortable to every attendee. Participants have familiar resources at hand and can address difficult issues without having to deal with travel fatigue or the stress of a strange environment. If the group decides to add additional participants on short notice, it's far easier to dial up their PCs than it would be to fly them in from another site.

Videoconferences also are intrinsically more productive than conventional meetings. Because they involve exotic technology and are often held in heavily utilized conferencing centers, they tend to be shorter and more structured. Speakers are less likely to ramble if they know they're on camera whenever they address the group.

Teleconferencing lets you hold otherwise-impossible meetings that span diverse groups of attendees at geographically remote sites. In some cases, it can be the only way for salespeople to simultaneously meet with executive management, engineers, manufacturing personnel, vendors and customers. When used for tasks like defining proposals, signing off specifications, generating schedules, signing contracts or nondisclosure agreements, or accepting finished products, such multisite discussions can significantly reduce the sales cycle of large projects.

Videoconferencing also offers many benefits over blind phone calls. The visual medium provides more information and more types of information than other types of long-distance communications. It helps prevent the misunderstandings that occur with written memos, e-mail and telephone conversations, especially when communications take place between people who speak different native languages or belong to disparate cultures.

Teleconferences incorporate multimedia more effectively than conventional meetings. Even mid-priced systems let you blend PowerPoint presentations with server-based streaming video, offsite videocamera feeds, videotape, DVD and 35mm slideshows. Relatively simple one-to-many broadcast conferences can allow viewers and presenters to exchange messages in a chat box or converse through a multisite audio hookup.

The Bottom Line
It's not hard to think of sales-oriented videoconferencing applications that range from training-on-demand systems to exotic Internet-based media broadcasts and seminars. Once you make the initial decision to investigate this powerful new technology, you may find that you're limited only by your imagination.


Glossary

audioconference: a teleconference in which each site is connected by a speakerphone-like terminal. No video or data-exchange is involved.

codec (COder/DECoder): any hardware or software mechanism that translates video or audio streams between compressed digital and uncompressed analog formats.

data-conference: a generic term for a teleconference that lets users on different machines jointly edit graphics and text or share a third-party application. Data-conferences can also incorporate a shared clipboard, background file-transfer capabilities and private chat facilities. Formerly referred to as an audiographics conference.

H.32x: a set of open ITU standards that enable different brands of videoconferencing equipment to interoperate. The most common H.32x suites are: H.320, which standardizes videoconferencing over digital switched media such as ISDN and T1 lines; H.323, which defines conferences over packet-switched networks like IP LANs and the Internet; and H.324, which specifies ways to videoconference over analog phone lines.

ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network): a standard for higher-speed digital phone lines capable of carrying voice, data and video more effectively than traditional analog lines.

multipoint teleconference: any audio-, video- or data-conference that links more than two sites. H.323 and T.120 have built-in multipoint capabilities, but H.324 and H.320 require an external server-like multipoint control unit to conduct multipoint sessions.

T.120: a suite of open standards that defines ways to implement cross-vendor multipoint data conferences. T.120 is designed to work seamlessly with the H.32x protocols, enabling data-conferencing features to be incorporated into any H.32x videoconference.

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