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7. Rich Media

Following 9/11, corporate interest in video and Web conferencing surged. Better products are on the way -- but limited bandwidth may leave some users disappointed.
Marie Leone, | US
October 4, 2002

Brief: First, the bad news. Rich media — voice-, video-, and Web conferencing — is currently constrained by economics and technology. Thus, holding a two-way Web conference isn't as easy, or cheap, as Mr. Sprockley makes it look.

To be sure, the corporate desire for rich-media products exists. In fact, analysts at Wainhouse Research LLC, in Brookline, Massachusetts, report that since 9/11, Web conferencing usage increased by 62 percent, video conferencing grew by 25 percent, and voice conferencing increased by 12 percent — an indication that executives are getting comfortable with the technology.

What It Is: Rich-media conferencing streams millions of megabytes of data between computers. Naturally, all that streaming requires greater bandwidth — unless, of course, users suddenly grow fond of slow-motion images and voice-synching on a par with Japanese science fiction movies from 1954.

Skinny: The price of greater bandwidth and media servers — or media server services — must drop before Web conferencing becomes commonplace, says John Onorato, CEO of Desktop Live, a streaming media provider. In addition, corporate security firewalls hamper media streams, while IT departments frown on tying up servers with bulky video feeds.

"An expense is an expense," remarks Onorato, and if company executives are waiting out the recession, they won't spend $15,000 for a boardroom plasma screen or even $2,000 for a video projector, much less monthly broadband charges.

Another problem: High corporate expectations for video conferencing have led to dissatisfaction with the technology, says Nancy Knowlton, president and COO of Smart Technologies Inc., a "roomware" provider that counts Chrysler, General Motors, and NASA's Langley Research Center as clients. Corporate users often expect Web- and videoconferencing to look like TV, and be as seamless as using the telephone. Surprise!

Still, Onorato and Knowlton say it will only take a few years for rich-media technologies to catch-up to expectations. Meanwhile, Onorato points to a silver lining: the increased use of Internet protocol networks — the backbone that carries voice, data, and video faster than legacy telco systems. IP networks already outperform the telco-owned ISDN lines in terms of speed and price, says Onorato.

The clouds should break in 2006, says a report released by Wainhouse in July. According to that report, the market for conferencing infrastructure products will shoot to $1.45 billion by 2006, up from $500 million in 2001. The report also claims that a shift from centrally managed video bridging services to automated self-service features will drive greater usage.

Wainhouse analysts also predict that commercial users are more likely to beef up audio conferences with graphical content. In addition, software vendors are expanding the more standard Web-conferencing fare — things like from PowerPoint and application sharing — to packages that enable attendees to interact through subconferences, text chat, online polls, and "follow me" Web browsing.

Smart Technologies, for one, offers an interactive, touch-screen whiteboard — an offline gadget for face-to-face meetings. The board is connected to a computer and projector. Users can take an Microsoft Excel cell that's projected onto the whiteboard, erase the existing number, write in a new one, and watch the new calculations materialize on the board.

ETA: Four years.