Videoconferencing has struggled to earn a place among business communications tools. Forty-odd years ago, videoconferencing seemed it would emerge out of a natural hybridization of the 20th century's two most important communications media: the telephone and television.
But implementing a Jetsons-like videophone proved more difficult than anticipated. And by the time webcam-equipped, Internet-connected PCs came along, texts, IMs, and tweets--all more convenient ways to communicate--had relegated video chats to niche status. But smartphones, tablets, and software-as-a-service may do for videoconferencing what telepresence suites and ISDN videophones never could.
For consumers, services like Skype and Google Chat make it easy to launch videoconferences with a laptop and a webcam or even a tablet. And Apple's FaceTime app integrates video calls right into the iPhone.
Web conferencing companies now are moving to do the same for businesses. Audio bridges and webcasts have been staples in the office for years, but until recently network capacity, particularly over the last mile, has limited the ability of businesses to do multiparty video. But gigabit enterprise WANs and 4G wireless networks have largely obliterated this problem. Now add smartphones and tablets, with their always-on wireless networks, high-resolution screens, and front-facing cameras, and you have a perfect video communications device, a fact that hasn't been lost on software vendors.
There's been a veritable land grab for smartphone and tablet screens as all the major Web conferencing services, including Adobe Connect, Citrix GoToMeeting, and Cisco WebEx, have developed mobile clients, primarily for Android and iOS.
Marrying the simple elegance of a mobile client with a sophisticated back-end video processing and connection brokering service that lives in the cloud makes for a powerful duo.
The cloud is a key ingredient because it insulates clients from the processor-intensive encoding and managing multiple video streams. The mobile device is little more than an intelligent display with a camera. Throwing cloud-based hardware at the problem also lets services like ClearSea do clever things such as automatically throttling video quality (frame rate and resolution) to accommodate slow client networks and pokey mobile CPUs while still delivering HD quality to users who have the hardware to handle the load.
We're still in the early stages of this mobile-cloud collaboration paradigm. Some conferencing services, like GoToMeeting, don't yet support bidirectional mobile video on multiparty calls, while high-end services, such as 8x8 and Nefsis, haven't yet developed mobile clients. But with enterprise video stalwarts like Polycom entering the mobile market, it's just a matter of time before things change. Soon, joining a videoconference from your iPad will be as easy as joining an online chat room, so it behooves IT departments to understand the implications of video meetings on their network infrastructure.