In the aftermath of the dot-com meltdown, videoconferencing has assumed the rap of many new technologies: it over-promises and under-delivers. Small-business CEOs in particular think of videoconferencing like the "television watches" of a Dick Tracy comic strip, inventions that may become reality some day in the future, but not now.
That future day, however, may have arrived early.
Thanks to broadband Internet connections, the price for a videoconference has dropped dramatically, especially with so-called desktop videoconferencing systems. Even poor sound and picture quality - problems that plagued videoconferencing technology since the first $100,000 room-size units were introduced about 15 years ago - show improvement.
"Videoconferencing has come a long way since the majority of users were large corporations," says Rolando Rosas, director of business development for Global-Tek Worldwide, a Miami-based provider of remote communications. "There are very good products available for the SOHO [small office/home office] market starting at around $400."
Mr. Rosas cites broadband technology and cheaper, more powerful hardware as reasons behind the trend. Greater affordability has led to increased use among remote workers and those who do a lot of international travel, he says. "[Considering] the price of a round-trip ticket from Miami to almost anywhere in Latin America, the equipment pays for itself," he adds.
Earlier this year, D-Link introduced its i2eye DVC-1000 VideoPhone, a small Internet appliance that hooks to a television and a broadband connection to let callers see each other while they talk. The i2eye connects to a television set or VCR with standard audio/video cables and doesn't need a computer. Users can easily configure i2eye through a set-up wizard displayed on a TV screen. The videophone lens has adjustable tilt and focus, and images can be shown full-screen or with a picture-in-picture feature.
D-Link's videophone streams video over a broadband connection at speeds of up to 30 frames per second.
At that rate, the i2eye image is stable and relatively jitter free, says Bradley Morse, vice-president of marketing for D-Link.
The i2eye price tag is an affordable $300 for one videophone and $500 for two.
"First-generation videoconferencing equipment was so expensive that small business was left out of the loop," Mr. Morse says. "We think the i2eye is ideal for small businesses."
Another feature that small businesses like is i2eye's compatibility with other videoconferencing systems, and there are plenty to choose from, according to Dave Roth, CEO of SDSL-Video Inc., a videoconferencing service and equipment provider based in Camarillo, California. "It's gotten very affordable for the customer these days," he says.
For example, First Virtual Communications offers Click to Meet Express, a Web-based software system. Click to Meet allows multiple users at multiple locations to talk, share documents, view video and text, and make presentations via their PCs.
The system was designed specifically for small and medium-size businesses, with pricing based on the number of simultaneous users. A typical four-user service bundle, which includes the software, conference server, and conference client hardware, costs $7,400, or about $206 per month over three years. If a company saves the cost of one plane ticket per month, it comes out ahead. (The camera, which costs about $100, is not included in the system.)
Polycom Inc. makes a broad line of videoconferencing equipment, including the ViaVideo II, a full-motion video and full duplex audio system that sells for about $600. Full duplex audio means you can talk and listen at the same time, with no annoying time lags or lost sound. The system is highly portable and connects to a USB port on a PC. ViaVideo II supports 11 languages and allows users to run other Windows applications on their desktop during videoconferencing.
While videoconferencing isn't a priority for every small company, "it can be an ideal communications tool," says Mr. Morse at D-Link. "From a 1,000-square-foot office you can connect to anywhere and talk about the things you need to talk about with the people you need to talk to on a daily basis."
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