This post originally ran in Wired Innovation Insights.
Everyone knows the workplace is more mobile, global, visual and collaborative these days. People use ubiquitous, two-way mobile phone and tablet cameras to communicate with colleagues in remote offices and “visual analytics” apps to create and present information, among other new technologies.
But one of the most basic office collaboration tools, video-conferencing, has been lagging behind — until now.
The options for video conferencing — a $5.3 billion business, according to Gartner — have ranged from the simple and sometimes glitchy (Skype, and more recently Google Hangouts) to the very pricey and complex (Cisco, Polycom). Those low-end systems can’t meet the needs of enterprises, and even high-end systems don’t support the way business is conducted today. They don’t allow, or make it very easy, for people to participate in video conferences from the road or on their phones or iPads, which are now key tools for businesspeople. They also make it difficult for people from more than a handful of locations to join virtual meetings.
Just ask the partners at my VC firm, who frequently struggle to get our VERY expensive (and somewhat cranky) video-conferencing system to work. We recently suffered through an embarrassing, 45-minute delay to a video pitch meeting for a company in another city, and later burned up a full hour of IT time prepping for another high-stakes video meeting. These experiences left our team yearning to act out this scene from the movie Office Space, replacing the printer that gets bashed in a field with a baseball bat with traditional teleconferencing equipment.
The good news today is that video conferencing, like so many other traditional industries, is getting modernized and “cloudified” as its core technology moves to the cloud and begins to be distributed as a service over the Internet. This is dramatically lowering costs for users and making video services more robust and flexible. It’s similar to the manner in which Amazon Web Services upended the traditional computer-server and storage industries by allowing companies to access raw computing power and storage over the Internet and pay for it like a metered utility, instead of buying expensive hardware.
Video conferencing is evolving as other, related collaboration tools transform today’s enterprise as well. This is happening partly because more and more companies are chasing what they call a “return on collaboration.” It’s a term that indicates a shift from the demand for technologies that purely drive efficiency to a demand for technologies that drive creativity and collaboration. We heard this phrase repeatedly in our research into this sector. Companies like Apple and Google have proved the profit power of collaborative cultures, and corporate America is actively working to catch up.
According to MIT Sloan Management Review, 75% of all businesses will be using collaboration technology tools in 2013, and nearly 90% will employ them by 2015. Such tools include software from companies like Prezi, which recently introduced a collaboration platform to make presentation creation and sharing accessible to dispersed groups, all online. Roambi and Tableau are data-visualization services that are rethinking the traditional productivity suite of Word, PowerPoint and Excel with visual and interactive graphics that make it easier to understand and share complex data. Tableau—which went public earlier this year — just announced a cloud product to harness even more data sources and deliver visual collaboration faster and easier.
But the most basic, and perhaps widely used, office-collaboration technology remains video-conferencing, through which people brainstorm, share information and make key business decisions. Today, a new breed of mobile worker has gotten accustomed to doing more business via video thanks to low-end solutions like Skype and Google Hangouts. (Skype reported earlier this year that users cumulatively spend over two billion minutes a day on the service.) But these consumer/SMB services usually fall short in a real enterprise situation. High-stakes meetings may require connecting people in front of traditional conference-room cameras with others using laptops or iPads in remote offices or at home. Enterprises also often require systems to schedule meetings and share screens during presentations. Today’s low-end solutions don’t allow that.
Pricier systems, like the one my firm uses, offer only some of those features and can cost companies as much as $50,000 to $100,000 per conference room, since the core conferencing technology is embedded in a piece of hardware connected to fixed screens and other equipment. This is cost-prohibitive for fast-growing companies, which have hundreds of video-conferencing “endpoints” in conference rooms or other offices. One, Blue Jeans Network, has managed to deconstruct traditional video conferencing to move most of the relevant technology to the cloud and use lower-priced hardware for conference-room settings, where necessary. People can also easily connect to Blue Jeans via any computer or mobile device, creating a unified, easy-to-use service for face-to-face collaboration and content sharing.
Several other companies are active in this sector as well now, from Fuzebox to Acano to Pexip to Glowpoint. Meanwile, Cisco and Polycom are seeing their traditional, hardware-based video-conferencing businesses decline. We’re excited about the innovation now hitting this market and making workplaces more collaborative. Though we’re still not sure what to do with all that old, expensive video-conferencing equipment — we may still need that baseball bat.