July 1995

Vendors: VTEL, VideoServer, ITU, ProShare, Dolch Computer Systems, DSVD, Multitech, DataBeam Corp., Farsite, PictureTel, AT&T;, DataPoint Corp., ViewPoint Systems, VIVO, Hitachi, JVC, Sanyo, Sharp, Creative Labs, Alpha, Altec Lansing, Intel, Personal Technology Research, Microsoft, IBM, Compression Labs, VTEL, Target Technologies

By Alan Freedman

Contributing Editor

Videoconferencing offers the next obvious step in communications, which is "almost" being there. That is, being there enough to accomplish a lot of things you can't do over the plain 'ole telephone system, affectionately known as "POTS." Being there enough to see the body language that speaks louder than words. Being there enough to collectively collaborate on a design. Being there enough to examine a patient and consult with a specialist in the big city.

Video allows criminal suspects to be arraigned while they're lounging in the local hoosegow. In education, holding classes by video with a remote instructor saves time and money.

The applications for learning and technical collaboration are endless. An interesting byproduct of videoconferencing is that group meetings are speeded up, because people have a different attitude when they are "on camera." They come better prepared in the first place, and they're more attentive. Speeding up endless meetings that drone on forever is an automatic productivity boost.

Videoconferencing is going to reduce the costs of business travel, and will allow for some real honest-to-goodness telecommuting. Bosses feel much more comfortable seeing their telecommuting employees than just talking to them.

Waltham, Mass.-based Personal Technology Research, a market research and consulting firm which tracks this business, estimates that shipments of PC and UNIX-based desktop videoconferencing systems - virtually a handful in 1994 - will grow to over five million units in 1999.

Why such explosive growth? Several things are intersecting. First of all, products have reached a certain level of maturity. Although LAN and POTS-based systems are relatively new, WAN-based systems are now in their second or third generation. Prices for WAN-based desktop systems - formerly ranging from $6,000 to $10,000 - have dropped to as low as $2,500 per seat, not including phone lines.

Secondly, ISDN service is finally becoming widespread, and costs have dropped to as little as $17 a month more than a standard business line. It only took the telephone companies a decade to get this vitally-needed service going. Thirdly, Intel has capitulated. Intel was trying to set its own standard for videoconferencing, called PCS, but the international ITU H.320 standard is simply too open and appealing. Intel has announced its ProShare video products will be H.320 compliant.

Lastly, LAN-based videoconferencing is emerging and gaining a lot of attention. Prices - from about $2,000 to $3,000 per seat - are appealing. POTS-based systems are also emerging for as little as $800.

Videoconferencing-equipped PCs will become available by the end of this year. Expect to see portables from Toshiba and others by the end of 1995 or early 1996, and if you can't wait, you can have one right now. Dolch Computer Systems of Fremont, Calif., makers of high-end ruggedized portables, already offers a video-equipped road machine. Both Microsoft and IBM are building in data collaboration and most likely other videoconferencing capabilities into Windows and OS/2 for release some time in 1996.

The First Major Standard

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) H.320 standard defines the international protocol for videoconferencing, which includes the communications handshaking and the compression algorithm used to squeeze the digitized audio and video into an economical bandwidth. Before H.320, all videoconferencing systems were proprietary, and most of the installed systems today still are.