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May 2000


Back To The Future


You have probably seen "Back to the Future Part II," where in the year 2015 Marty McFly receives a video call from his boss in which he is promptly fired. The call, which looked and sounded perfect, came to Marty's house through a large-screen TV while Marty's son was surfing channels. This movie, which was once futuristic, is not so futuristic anymore.

Video conferencing, set-top boxes, DSL. Imagine these three "technology gambles" coming together to deliver true Internet video communications. Well, welcome to the future. Full-motion, synchronized video and audio communications, once a fantasy and creation of Hollywood, are now a reality for the business and home.

Businesses are pushing for the latest technology in video conferencing and video streaming to enable them to communicate and compete on a global basis. As more companies expand around the world, they want to communicate face-to-face and conduct training for personnel in other parts of the world, without the expense of traveling.

Education institutions want to offer students the ability to take a class from a remote campus, possibly even an international class with a professor located in another country. Medical personnel would like to be able to offer personal medical attention to patients by making virtual house calls.

At home, individuals have been experimenting with placing telephone calls over the Internet and browsing the Web through their TVs. With new Internet appliances, these two technologies can come together to offer audio and video calls over the Internet, video e-mail, and video streaming from a set-top box connected to the TV.

Cahners In-Stat reports that the home networking market, which grew by 18 percent in the third quarter of 1999, will continue growing and that integration will take place between the broadband providers and home networking technology providers. As broadband providers continue to compete for access opportunities in the home, they will begin to bundle a variety of Internet appliances and other unique technologies with their services to give them an edge over other providers.

Analysts have long been predicting that video conferencing would be the next killer application if certain technology requirements could be met, the first being bandwidth. Bandwidth no longer remains an issue. With broadband connection options such as optical, fiber to the desktop, DSL and cable modems, businesses and home users now have the ability to tap into a virtually unlimited supply of bandwidth.

Next, the adoption and implementation of the H.323 protocol for transmitting video over TCP/IP has given the video conferencing industry a boost. Previous video conferencing systems used H.320, which required dedicated ISDN lines and would only allow you to conference from point to point. This was not really even an option for home users because ISDN is so costly.

To create full-motion, synchronized audio and video communications over the Internet, many pieces of hardware are utilized, from a VGA card, video capture card, and a sound card to a scan converter and MPEG card. The next wave of technology replaces all of these with a single PC or Internet appliance powered by an Internet media processor, an evolution in high-speed processors. This new Internet media processor is designed to offload the processing of video and audio from Windows and the host CPU to deliver full-motion (up to 30 frames per second) video communications.

Finally, video conferencing software, accessible by almost anyone, can now be optimized to work with the Internet media processor to enable full-motion video conferencing and video streaming. White Pine's CU-SeeMe software and Microsoft Windows NetMeeting, combined with an Internet media processor, enable individuals to keep up with the trends and needs in the market.

WELCOME TO 2015...
There is no question that businesses and households are connected to the Internet. According to Strategis Group, approximately 90 million households and 8.3 million businesses will have access by the year 2004, up from 46.5 million and 6.3 million, respectively, today. The question becomes: How quickly will they adopt true Internet video communications and what is holding them back?

The same questions were asked about TVs, PCs, and cellular phones. The only difference is that as new technologies are introduced today, they are more quickly adopted into the mass market than they were decades ago. Today, the initial price of technologies can be high, but as history dictates, prices will come down as demand increases.

Video conferencing technology has been around for a few years, but without the quality that businesses and consumers are looking for, the technology remained a "gamble." But watch out, because with the new technologies hitting the market, the next movie with real-time video conferencing will probably be filmed in my house, not on some Hollywood set with tricks and animation.

Thomas Fehr is the chief marketing officer for MAX Internet Communications. MAX Internet Communications is revolutionizing video communication technology via the Internet by developing products and technology that enable desktop PCs and Internet information appliances to become the total solution for high-quality video communications. For more information, visit their Web site at www.maxic.com.

The Dawn Of A New Communications Age


Many skeptics say that the Internet lacks a level of interpersonal communication, hindering it from ever completely replacing face-to-face interaction. To combat this, service providers are beginning to incorporate visual communication (audio and video) technology into computers to offer users simulated real-time visual collaboration. There are two fundamental trends fueling the demand for video on the Internet. The first is the increasing availability of bandwidth. As high-speed Internet connections have been made possible through DSL and cable modem development, fiber and copper resources within the backbone infrastructure are being optimized to enable integrated services (data/voice/video) to flow more seamlessly across the network.

The second trend is society. People are used to communicating face-to-face, yet we are constantly on the move -- this luxury we once took for granted becomes more difficult to achieve. Parents in New York want to see their children while they're studying abroad in London, not just speak with them on the phone. Corporate management in San Francisco wants to interact with employees in Charlotte, not just read about what they're doing through monthly reports. Eighty percent of all communication is non-verbal, and without the level of visual collaboration video provides, the Internet will continue to lack personalization and a universality of communication.

On the consumer side, the most prevalent use of this technology is through video chat, which is possible today without the purchase of any special software/hardware add-ons. Video chat can be experienced on three different levels: Group (large amount of people), buddy (a few people), and private or one-on-one chat (sparked by the Instant Messaging (IM) phenomenon). IM provides a higher level of interactivity than e-mail, and adding the video element to this represents the future of next-generation directory services.

On the business side, video (particularly streaming media) adds a new element to e-commerce and help-desk functions, significantly improving the level of customer service. The Internet is seen as an up-and-coming shopping place (consumers spent over $7 billion online over the holiday season), but it still hasn't reached its potential as many people feel more comfortable with seeing what they're going to buy at the store. Video can help retailers build a balance between the tangible brick-and-mortar shopping experience and the convenience of shopping online by giving consumers a new level of assurance about what they're buying over the Internet. Help desk customer service is better attained through video interaction as well. Customers can now interact face to face with a service representative. This level of customer service, achieved through video, gives call centers an opportunity to make a personal connection to their customers.

Video collaboration is assisting everything from enabling employees to telecommute from home to allowing grandparents to see their grandchildren take their first steps. By the end of the year, nearly all PCs will come equipped with desktop-mountable cameras. While only 25 percent of the U.S. population is online today, video represents a new motivation to introduce more people to the Internet. As Internet video becomes more readily available, the innovation and imagination afforded by face-to-face communication will tear down the impersonal limitations the Internet faces today.

Peg Landry is director of marketing for White Pine Software. White Pine develops software solutions that facilitate worldwide video and audio communication and data collaboration across the Internet. For more information, visit the company's Web site at www.wpine.com.

Can Your PC Replace Your Telephone?


Telephones are a classic example of the general-purpose PC versus the special-purpose appliance. When looked at in this light, the telephone is a surprisingly heavyweight appliance, basically needing its own network. But there is really no reason to maintain separate networks for voice and data, and a lot of reasons to combine them.

A standard PC contains all the components found in a high-end "executive" telephone, and more. All that's missing is the handset (and an anti-feedback device, for people who enjoy talking to you on a speakerphone). But these are commonly available at low cost for direct plug-in to your PC's sound card. PC phones can directly access your company's directories, both internal and external, plus commonly used application programs. It's VERY convenient to be able to just drag and drop a phone number, wherever it might appear, to your phone icon when you want to place a call.

So why aren't we already using our PCs as phones? Is the problem that our data networks are not up to the real-time demands of audio conferencing? Not likely. Even when non-compressed legacy voice coding is used, a conversation needs just a percent or two of a 100-Mbps Ethernet virtual connection. Latency is not a problem either, unless we venture out onto the Internet. And when we do need to talk to someone outside, gateways for this purpose are readily available.

Perhaps the reason is that PCs are perceived as less dependable than telephones. You don't want to miss calls while your PC reboots. But then, how often do people reach you on the first try, anyway? More and more, telephony resembles messaging. You listen to your voice mail, and leave voice mail for others. And, as Windows 98 and NT have matured, PCs HAVE become more stable and computer networks have become non-stop 24x7 resources. The absolute indispensability of computers has had a lot to do with this. After all, computers will get you through times of no phones better than phones will get you through times of no computers.

So what really is holding up the PC telephone? As is often the case, the answer is simply inertia, plus a lack of good software. Telephony pundits universally predict that voice over IP is the future of telephony. Most seem to assume that the standard telephone will eventually morph into an IP telephone set. But historically, every time a new device has threatened to carve out a little space on your desk, the PC has risen to the challenge. So an equally possible future is simply a gradual transition at every desktop from legacy telephone to PC. You find yourself making more and more calls from your PC, then receiving calls on your PC, and ultimately you just say goodbye to your legacy phone.

Pete Harris is president of The Bristol Group. The Bristol Group develops messaging software for the large-scale fax and IP telephony markets. Bristol solutions are used extensively in the financial, transportation, and travel sectors to provide high volume messaging. For more information, visit the company's Web site at www.bg.com.

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