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Seeing is believing

The past few weeks saw several significant announcements in the space of videoconferencing,  collaboration and video chat. Skype got acquired, Google+ was introduced with Hangouts, and today Facebook launched video chat with Skype under the hood.

The sheer speed at which this industry is evolving this year speaks to the growing significance companies attach to their video communication strategies. It also reflects upon the increased willingness on the part of consumers to use video chat as an option for communication, both in the enterprise and personal settings. As Zuck pointed out in his announcement today, willingness to share seems to be exponentially increasing, and being able to see each other on a call is gaining importance as a default assumption than the exception.

So how do all these solutions compare? In the enterprise world, video typically has taken a backseat in the presentation-sharing kind of collaboration environment where the Webexes rule. Solutions like Skype GVC as well as the Blue Jeans solution are focused on bringing video front and center. When you see the other party as clearly as possible, conversations happen much more easily and meetings get to be more productive.

In the consumer world adoption of video has been slow, over the years. With the proliferation of webcams on laptops and mobile devices, the threshold to start a video call is very minimal now, which has spurred wider adoption. With solutions like Skype GVC one is stuck with a paid solution where are Facebook video chat ties one to a peer-to-peer call. Google video chat faces the same challenge as well. Well, that’s until Google unleashed Google+,  with Hangouts for multiparty video chats. For free.

Facebook video chat seemed to be really easy to use, compared to Hangouts. Easy to setup,and call a person, vs sending out an invite to a circle and waiting for people to see that and join. The video quality and the general look and feel seemed quite basic and needs a lot more work, but it is definitely functional. Hangouts, on the other hand, seems harder to launch, but is much cooler as a real use-case scenario, where I might want to bring in more than one person into a video chat.

In another significant development, Google opensourced WebRTC. Given this toolkit, expect to see several variants of browser-based video chat clients in the next year or two. Solutions like Hangout and a few others that are in the works to be released in the coming year will make it easy to start and join multiparty videoconference calls.

The key differentiator here, in terms of wider adoption of these new offerings, will be interoperability and scalability. How easily can you call friends who are not on the same network  (say a friend on gmail who’s logged into it now, but is not on Facebook). This is where cloud-based solutions such as Blue Jeans will have their say, where they are endpoint agnostic and bridge these islands together seamlessly. The scalability piece will get reflected in the use of these products in large lecture-mode types of conference call settings, as well as in scaling hardware and software deployments to keep up with demand for these products.

Irrespective of which of these technologies drop by the wayside and which end up getting wide adoption, there will be radical changes in the way video communications and collaboration happen. The existing revenue models might be dated as well, and new models being explored such as a paid GVC account may not catch the fancy of the public used to Free (Google Video chat, Hangouts etc.). Products that survive will have to find innovative ways to generate profits out of an exploding base of video callers. Unlike audio calls, video calls take much more resources and the challenge would be to bring down the cost of a video call to the same level as that of audio calls.

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