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Feature Article
March 2001


What Good Is The Information Age Without Effective Communications?


[Go right to Visual Communications: Beyond The Stigma Of Video Conferencing]

Several years ago, a lot was made of the coming Information Age. Articles were written, and pundits spoke of the move from a world driven by manufacturing to one where information reigned as king. Since then, we have seen the explosion of the Internet and the advent of high-performance personal computers for the home that cost under $1,000. With access to so much data, have we finally entered the Information Age?

The idea of information, and the Information Age, is predicated on the ability to effectively communicate what the data means, and how to use it. As a result, access to data is insufficient; users must also have the tools to share their understanding and knowledge, opinions, and decisions. They must also be able to pick and choose the most effective method of communicating amongst the variety of media types that are available today. Some ideas are better communicated through pictures, when reading a person�s facial expressions is critical to the negotiation process. An integrated communications platform that offers the user a wide choice of communications methods will result in better understanding, faster decision-making and execution, and a more competitive organization.

Consider the potential of an integrated communications platform -- it represents an approaching trend and a paradigm-shift for IP-communications professionals that will enhance business processes. Corporate IT circles should embrace the notion of providing such a platform to end users because of the productivity advantages it offers. Emerging technologies, such as the swelling popularity of IP-centric networking and the growing abundance of bandwidth, will also help make this concept a reality in the near future.

But the success of this integrated communications platform demands a cultural metamorphosis and a commitment from IP-communications professionals to educate end users in the best way to use this dynamic, new platform.

Integrated communications provides a single way in which the end user can focus on what they want to do, rather than how to do it. This new platform will unify various communications media through a common usage method, be it voice telephony, e-mail, fax, "whiteboarding," graphical presentation, video conferencing, live streamed video, and video-on-demand (VOD). Also, it will facilitate integration of multiple methods, allowing a video conference call to share streamed video, for example. Finally, it will broker multimedia interactions between dissimilar end devices, which will allow users with differing capabilities to participate in the same discussion, with each receiving whatever information is capable of being received by their communications device.

Why is this unity needed? Until recently, one of the barriers that limited the widespread adoption of video conferencing services has been the lack of a standard integration methodology. If a different access point is required to make a telephony call versus a video call, most end users will select the simplest, most familiar option -- the phone. If an end-point appliance was capable of integrating both the telephony call and the video, inevitably end users would begin using the video call more often.

Today, however, end users and IT professionals are faced with complicated interfaces and an array of communications media that are all designed to function independently.

The opportunity to make optimal use of the full array of media is just around the corner. Already, vendors are pitching Web access on cell phones and blending audio calls with online slide presentations. PC endpoints are already able to handle graphics, streaming, and in some cases, video conferencing. In addition, set top boxes are making the home television more interactive. But while today�s solutions are selectively convenient, the integrated platform of the future allows simultaneous multimedia access for business communications.

Imagine a not-so-futuristic corporate desktop with an integrated communications platform. There�s an 18x24-inch flat screen on which the user can perform familiar PC functions, have live video streamed off broadcast networks, access the Internet, dig into a VOD library, make IP-telephone calls, automatically set up conference calls without a bridging service, create one-way broadcast videos, and participate in two-way video conferences.

Offered such a desktop today, most users would be clueless as to which medium or mix best suits a given communications chore. E-mail is a prime example of this. After two decades of use, e-mail is still routinely abused by users who stuff into the "to" line the addresses of people who should only be copied on the e-mails. Such mistakes create confusion because no one knows who actually "owns" the action item. We are getting to the point where the technology of communications can do more than people know how to handle. Therefore, education is essential.

To take advantage the integrated communication platforms, users must be trained on all communications media and taught how to choose which is the best for any given job. What is the difference in writing style between overhead-slide presentations and e-mail? What combination of video, audio, and text is most persuasive for which audience? Unless the end users understand how to effectively formulate their communications content, giving them more choices on how they deliver it will only exacerbate their ineffectiveness.

In the meantime, such education is useless if a company�s procedures are inherently flawed. Unfortunately, most companies, regardless of IT wealth, are poor at running business meetings -- even when they are held in one room. Discomfort with video conferencing is often traced, in part, to a lack of well-structured meetings. To even approach their potential, communications initiatives must be matched with procedural discipline.

As has often happened in the past, technology will soon provide us with a dramatic new solution to simplify our communications -- if the end user is prepared to use this new venue. As the technology progresses and interfaces become simpler, more people will adopt the technology because it substantially increases their access to information and subsequent productivity. This trend will generate the cultural acceptance that will open the door for the integrated communication platform of tomorrow.

David Butt is director of product marketing at FVC.COM. FVC.COM is a leader in two-way broadband video networking, providing systems and services that enable system integrators and service providers to deliver rich media communications to their enterprise customers. For more information, visit the company on the Web at www.fvc.com.

Return To The March 2001 Table Of Contents

Visual Communications: Beyond The Stigma Of Video Conferencing


For many years analysts and industry insiders alike have asked the same question: Why has video conferencing, in particular desktop video conferencing, failed to live up to the expectations which were set back in the early 90's?

Some argue that it was the price of the technology; some that it was the quality of the video; others that it was the poor reliability of ISDN; and others still that it was the availability of ISDN. Some even go as far as to question the value of video itself -- a view that I have always found, and continue to find, arcane. To suggest that the visual element of communications is unimportant is akin to the now infamous remark made by the Chief Engineer of the British Post Office, Sir William Preece, in 1876 regarding the need for the new invention which had just come on to the market: "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys." The point at issue is that visual communication is a fundamental element of human interaction. In fact, many studies have shown that the visual element of communications can carry as much as 60 percent of the information in a conversation!

My own belief is that the industry failed to address some fundamentals aspects of human behavior; it failed to recognize several critical factors that had to be addressed if the market were ever to succeed.

Ease Of Use
For any new technology to find widespread adoption it has to be easy to use; so easy to use in fact that anybody can use it. We can all remember how we learned to use the telephone -- the interface is intuitive and obvious. You simply pick up the phone, dial the number and you're connected. Video conferencing has to aspire to the same level of user friendliness.

This relates exactly to the same problem faced by early adopters of the telephone and the fax, i.e., whom are you going to call? Desktop video conferencing systems have suffered from two drawbacks -- first, they have typically been deployed on the ISDN network and therefore required a different "video number" to the user's telephone number. Second, you not only had to have a video conferencing system at each end, but they also had to comply with the same standards. Even then it was generally wise to have equipment from the same manufacturer since different interpretations of the same standard often meant that equipment which purported to be standards-compliant often failed to connect.

The Right Tool For The Right Job
We have to recognize that the PC was never intended to be used for audio communications. It's not unlike trying to use a car on water. (Stay with me here!) You can do it if you modify the car, but if you're regularly on the water then you don't buy an amphibian, you buy a boat. To use a PC as a phone requires that the PC is always on -- something that is generally unacceptable and certainly can't be guaranteed; but it also requires the addition of speakers or headphones -- yet another hurdle to overcome. Perhaps most importantly, it would need to provide access to everyone who I can call from my phone -- and all the features that I am used to using on my phone. In their desire to "shift boxes," the video conferencing manufacturers ignored reality: The end user is never going to trash their phone in favor of the PC.

The challenge for the industry then is to provide solutions, which are:

  • Easy to use -- There is no reason why a video conference cannot be established with just one click. If it can't, then the system is probably too complex.
  • Accessible -- The end user should not have to use a separate video conferencing number. Solutions should use a regular telephone number to initiate a call.
  • Fully-featured -- Solutions should "work" in all circumstances and have access to all the features, which we are used to on our phones -- voice mail, call transfer, three-way calling, etc.
  • Ad-hoc -- Access to video should be ad-hoc. Many of the calls we make are fine with audio only; indeed in many cases it is distinctly preferable not to have video. But when I do want to enhance my communication I want ad-hoc access such that I can add video or shared data even midway through a call.
  • Ubiquitous -- Video conferencing should be accessible from, and provide connectivity between, a variety of end points, from a laptop PC and a mobile phone to a fully featured room system.

In summary, we need to stop thinking about videoconferencing as a different way of communicating, but rather as a better way of communicating. Before the advent of telecommunications the standard way of communicating was face-to-face -- with full use of voice, video and "data." Limited by the shortcomings of technology, telecommunications focused first on voice -- voice is, after all, critical to the majority of human communication, but in so doing we lost so much of the subjective information carried by visual communications.

Technology has now caught up and it is time to once again avail ourselves of "Total Communications" -- the ad-hoc access to simultaneous voice, video and data.

Graham Seabrook is founder and CEO, Ridgeway Systems & Software. Ridgeway is a leading developer of broadband media switches and software that seamlessly integrate real-time voice, video, and data over the Internet. Funded by several international investors including Amadeus Capital Partners, Atlas Venture, Bessemer Venture Partners, and Westpool Investment Trust, Ridgeway's goal is to provide the technology through which all interactive media is delivered. For more information, visit the company on the Web at www.ridgeway-sys.com.

Return To The March 2001 Table Of Contents

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