In your face: Affordable videoconferencing

Video calls shouldn't just be for iPad users. Here's a guide to today's face-to-face tools, for businesses large and small

I remember when IP-based videoconferencing first became an option in the enterprise. It wasn't cheap or very good in the early days, though at the time it seemed awesome (remember CU-SeeMe in the early 1990s?). Today, we have more capable tools such as Skype and FaceTime that shrink the distance between people like never before. It's easy to see why these tools are widely used: I'm heading off to Microsoft next week for the MVP Summit and will be away from my family for four days. My son is at the age where a parent's absence can be unsettling. For him, FaceTime videoconferencing is a lifesaver. He walks around with my wife's iPad and talks to me via FaceTime as if I were right there, which calms his separation anxiety. To me, it's the best thing about an iPad.

Similarly amazing videoconferencing technology can be used in your business, yet few take advantage of it.

[ Read the InfoWorld Test Center's review of the Microsoft Lync unified communications server. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

You can't use FaceTime as your enterprise videoconferencing tool. For one, it runs only on Macs and iOS devices, not the Windows PCs standard in most businesses. But even if there were a FaceTime app for Windows or if you gave all employees an iPad, FaceTime wouldn't fit the bill. There's the pesky security issue of the number of network ports for which you'd have to enable forwarding: ports 53, 80 (!), 443, 4080, 5223, and 16393 to 16472, notes security consultant Erik Eckel. That's a lot of doors to leave open.

In a world of disparate devices and operating systems, it may be difficult to settle on an enterprise videoconferencing system, all of which have a very proprietary history. But given the consumerization and BYOD phenomena, videoconferencing vendors are increasingly trying to provide multiplatform services that address both compliance and security concerns. For example, Mitel, Polycom, and Vidyo have clients that work on both Apple iOS and Android devices; Cisco Systems' WebEx service has an iPhone client; and Avaya now has an iPad client.

In the Microsoft universe, there is Lync, available as both the on-premise Lync server and as part of Microsoft's hosted Office 365 service. That Lync Online service is impressive for a small-business deployment, matching the on-premise server version's meeting capacity of 250 and support for desktop sharing, application sharing, whiteboarding, and PowerPoint presentation. Microsoft recently released clients for iOS and Android.

One thing I really like about Lync is the optional Microsoft RoundTable 360-degree video camera, which gives you a video panorama that automatically displays onscreen whoever is speaking around that table. Thus, you can see everyone sitting at a table but highlight the current speaker.

If you're looking to telecommute and want a physical presence attached to your videoconference element, you might try a remote presence system (RPS) -- sort of like Skype on a stick. If you're a "Big Bang Theory" aficionado, you might remember last year's episode with Shel-bot, which used Pilot Presence's RPS product.

Obviously, larger organizations would consider an enterprise-oriented, dedicated videoconferencing system. Citrix Systems' GoToMeeting offers impressive group videoconferencing options such as high-definition video. Logitech's LifeSize division offers HD videoconferencing as well; its Express Series of products was named by InfoWorld as a 2010 Technology of the Year.

We all complain that email and other text-based communications are horrible at times for conveying certain aspects of a work dialog. How often does a text message create unnecessary angst simply because of its brevity or perceived tone? Seeing a person's face eliminates many of those communication issues.

Depending on your size and budget, videoconferencing is an excellent way to improve communications and collaboration in your organization. Whether you take advantage of one-to-one conferences via Skype or FaceTime or have many-to-many discussions through an enterprise-class offering vendor, the end result is a more cohesive organization.

This article, "In your face: Affordable videoconferencing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies