Exhibit A: IP-based equipment has improved. In the late 90s the videoconferencing industry realized that the existing phone-system platform was a dead end, and that the Internet was the way to go. An IP based system would provide easier scheduling and better integration with conferencing software, the Web, and other applications. It could also potentially deliver much higher (and cheaper) bandwidth. The whole industry shifted toward IP, but in a sense, the technology had to be reinvented from scratch, and the quality suffered. The Internet was never designed for real-time two-way communications and it is particularly plagued by latencythe momentary delays that can turn video chat into a badly dubbed movie. Thanks to improvements in software and hardware, however, IP systems are now far more reliable, with better algorithms to handle latency and other glitches.
Exhibit B: Standards have matured. Much of the recent improvement in videoconferencing performance comes from adherence to mature standards. True, there are two of them: the high-end H.323 typically used in corporate conferencing systems and the simpler, but faster-growing SIP (Session Initiation Protocol), which is common to software-based VoIP. Yet, after much acrimony, both have remained standing, and the two sides have reached a grudging mutual acceptance. In fact, many new systems now support both. H.323 offers more comprehensive support for group conferencing and enterprise gateways, while the low-overhead SIP is the typical choice for desktop videophones, as well as the standard that is most likely to be used to give videoconferencing abilities to third-generation cellular phone services.
Okay, I lied. Theres actually a third standard you need to know about: the H.350 directory services standard that bridges the two other standards. Adopted last year by the International Telecommunications Union, which established H.323, H.350 defines the storage of dialing information for both video and VoIP networks, thus making it easier to find others with whom to hold a video chat (including SIP users).
Exhibit C. Broadband gets broader. Theres a good reason why videoconferencing has grown faster in businesses than in homes: most broadband networks found in the corporate world are symmetrical, offering as much bandwidth for uploading as for downloading. Consumer cable-modem links and most DSL connections, on the other hand, are asymmetrical, with far more bandwidth available for download than for upload. Yet upload speeds have been improving lately, with a growing number of cable-modem and DSL providers raising the minimum to 384 kilobits per second–the base standard for decent-quality videoconferencing. Starting next year, cable companies will start deploying new equipment that could double or triple these upload speeds.
Exhibit D: Computers are faster. It may seem that most of your software runs about as fast on your 3-gigahertz computer as it did on your 1-gigahertz machine, but videoconferencing can make use of much of that untapped processing power. If a large percentage of the computing population has Pentium 3 or faster computers, fast broadband connections, and good webcams (which can be had for about $50), well have the proper conditions for an explosion of software-based (i.e., cheap) videoconferencing.