You dont hear much about videoconferencing any more, and for good reasondecades of unfulfilled promises have left most people a little jaded. Still, over the last year Ive seen some surprisingly high-quality performance from gear selling for under $1,000, and last week when Polycom, the worlds leading videoconferencing vendor, introduced its first software-based PC videoconferencing package, called PVX, I decided the topic deserved another look. If Polycom, which had long eschewed software-based videoconferencing systems, now believed that the installed base of computers was powerful enough to handle two-way video without a pricey dedicated box attached, then maybe a true consumer videophone market was ready to fly.
There has also been growing evidence on the services front. On September 28, Time Warner Cable of Northeastern Ohio launched a videoconferencing service based on Viseons standalone VisiFone for its Road Runner cable-modem customers. The VisiFone, which has earned rave reviews, is a standalone device, but at $599 its almost cheap enough to succeed in the consumer realm. Then last week, an AT&T executive reported that the company was working on integrating videoconferencing with its CallVantage voice-over-IP service. Earlier in the year, Skype announced it would introduce a VoIP-based videoconferencing package in 2005. And according to a study published in June by Wainhouse Research, the videoconferencing market is, after several years of slump, growing 27 percent a year, from $530 million in sales in 2003 to a projected $1.1 billion in 2008. In China, the market is surging at a scorching 83 percent per year.
Still, I remained skeptical. As one of those journalists who misled the public about the coming boom in videoconferencing during the 90s, I vowed several years ago that I would never again write about videoconferencing unless remarkable signs or omens appeared. Either my Mom would call me up asking me to get a Web camera, or Hollywood would produce a reality-TV version of Gilligans Island, or a Republican administration and Congress would run huge deficits and pass massive education and healthcare legislation. As I pondered my vow anew, my cell phone rang and a familiar number appeared. I went running from the room.
As it turned out, my Mom only wanted to knowwhat elsehow to get rid of all the adware clogging up her computer. (I suggested Spybot, but if that didnt work, abstinence.) Afterward, I returned to studying the recent videoconferencing boomlet and decided it might not be a fluke after all. First there were the basics mentioned in the Wainhouse report: falling equipment costs, improving quality, and tightening travel budgets. True, thats what I was writing ten years ago, but there are many other reasons why the segment is taking off. In fact, there are even signs that videoconferencing may finally move from the enterprise market–where most of the growth has occurred to date–into the potentially larger consumer realm.