It’s time for us all to get ready for our close ups. Because after decades of false steps and delay, it seems like video calling (or whatever you want to call it - video conferencing, telepresence or unified communication) might finally be ready for the spotlight, so to speak.
Communicating by video has always been a natural – a staple of science fiction and the popular imagination. More than that, it touches on the most basic ways humans communicate – whether dancing by a fire or acting out a funny story or teaching a boy how to hunt.
And it will only get better. Bell Labs is working on a host of innovative ways to make visual communication even more like face-to-face interactions.
But visual communication has been held back by some intractable problems – from compatibility to poor quality to prohibitive expense. In fact, pretty much the same problems people likely dealt with in the early days of voice communication. On top of that, video is also more sensitive than voice to tradeoffs between bandwidth and quality within a network.
Of course, over the top (OTT) video has been big for a while, with Skype, Apple’s FaceTime and Google Talk. But that has not really translated either to widespread enterprise adoption or to any significant revenues for operators or providers.
Until now. While the consumer market remains relatively far off, Ovum predicts that that the enterprise-grade telepresence market is going to boom, with spending rising to USD 1.1 billion in 2016, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.5 percent from 2011 to 2016.
That’s a lot of growth for just one part (albeit a large one) of the video conferencing market.
In fact you can say there are three markets – telepresence, video conferencing and collaboration tools – slowly converging into one grander video market, each segment with its major players from Microsoft and IBM in collaboration tools to Lifesize and Radvision in video conferencing and Cisco and Polycom in telepresence.
Between the high end of this bigger market – exemplified by TANDBERG, now part of Cisco – and the low end – think Microsoft Lync –there seems to be an opportunity for operators to stake a position in the middle and take advantage of their advantages in network infrastructure.
So there is no guarantee that telecom companies will be at the center of video. This is reflected in a quote from Ian Jacobs, the co-author of the Ovum report:
"Businesses will face a difficult task in deciding on the right vendor in a particularly rapidly changing supplier marketplace.
They may return to their legacy video conferencing vendor for telepresence or look to new-breed video specialists. They might make the choice as a stand-alone decision or as part of a broader enterprise communication strategy."
And what about those historic barriers, quality and interoperability? Well, with the new mobile broadband networks built on LTE technology, speed and capacity costs are going to go down. That’s the easy part. Interoperability is not as simple. Right now the market can best be described as an archipelago of different islands, where different gateways are used to “connect” the islands. In the long run, this is not the way to turn visual communication into a mass market service for all, like voice today.
Many companies are pushing for industry standards. The TIP standard driven by Cisco has been on the agenda for some time, while Polycom, together with a group of operators, created the Open Visual Communications Consortium (OVCC) earlier this year. However, the only open industry standard is really MMTel based on the 3GPP IMS standard. GSMA is also working towards an IMS-based VoLTE (Voice over LTE) video profile.
Yet this is still a rocky area. Google caused waves in 2010 when it stopped supporting the H.264 video codec – the choice of the telecom industry, essentially – in its Chrome browser. And there are players trying to find ways to support all standards – see BT Conferencing’s latest offering – rather than decide on one standard for all.
Regardless, operators are well positioned in video to compete with over the top (OTT) players, perhaps more so than in voice and messaging. The reality is that real-time video calling needs the audio and video streams to synch, and this requires a high quality, properly managed network. And operators are the only ones with that.
At least for now.