Video Conferencing for Small Businesses

Thursday Apr 3rd 2008 by James A. Martin
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Meet face-to-face with far-flung clients and co-workers without ever leaving your office. Yes, small biz finally enters the age of video conferencing.

Communicating through video has finally become a viable option for small businesses. And hey, it only took 44 years.

Videophones were the talk of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Though the videophone never took off, today’s video chat and video conferencing systems are gaining traction with small businesses. Low Webcam prices and more Web-based services aimed at small businesses are two reasons for video conferencing’s growing popularity.

Another reason: More businesses use Internet Protocol (IP) networks, which can support the heavy bandwidth demands of sophisticated video conferencing systems, according to research firm In-Stat. Also, In-Stat notes that the growing desire among businesses to "go green" (through reduced travel and other efforts) is also fueling interest in video conferencing.

Video Chat, Videconference or Telepresence?

First, it’s important to understand the difference between video chat, video conference and telepresence.

Video chat: Usually, video chat refers to two (or more) people informally communicating online through an instant messaging (IM) service, including Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger. Some voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, such as Skype, offer video chat too. Most video chat services are free. They can be used for business, but they’re primarily tailored to consumers.

Video chat services typically allow only two parties to communicate at one time. But some, such as Apple’s iChat and OoVoo, a free online communications service currently in beta, connect multiple parties simultaneously.

There are other differences between video chat services to consider. For example, iChat and OoVoo allow you to record your video conferences (with the other participant's permission). With iChat, you can record video chats as MPEG-4 files and play them back in iTunes on your computer or on your iPod/iPhone.

Trying one of these free services is an easy, affordable way to test video conferencing before you use it in your business.

Videoconference: Sometimes, the terms "video chat" and "video conference" are used interchangeably. To further confuse the issue, videoconferencing may also be part of a "Web conference."

A video conference is a real-time video conversation conducted online between two or more parties, usually for business purposes. A video conference may incorporate other forms of online collaboration, hence the term "Web conference."

For example, during a Web conference you might share your desktop screen with others via a Web browser, in order to collaborate on a document or give a PowerPoint presentation. At the same time, conference participants may also be visible on your screen, in smaller windows.

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Video conferencing and Web conferencing options for small businesses include:

WebEx ($39-$49/month per person) provides Web conferencing that includes on-demand, online meetings combining video conferencing, IM and shared desktops and applications. The WebEx service works within your Web browser; there’s no need to install an application.

SightSpeed Business ($20/month per person) includes features such as the capability to record video and voice conferences, video mail, file sharing and multiple video viewing modes. (Separately, SightSpeed also offers a free personal video chat service.) With either option, you’ll need to download and install an application to use the service.

Packet8 Virtual Office ($25/month and up), a VoIP service for small businesses, recently added video conferencing via the Packet8 Virtual Office Tango Video Terminal Adapter (VTA). The device uses a built-in, five-inch color screen and a 180-degree rotating camera to capture video. Among the system’s features: You can initiate video conferences by clicking to dial a contact in Microsoft Outlook. The Tango VTA costs $100-$150. Video conferencing is a free add-on for subscribers of Packet8 Virtual Office VoIP service plans.

Polycom, Tandberg and Microsoft also offer a variety of voice and video conferencing systems for small and midsized businesses.

Telepresence: The term used for ultra-expensive video conferencing systems from Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and others. Telepresence systems are aimed at large enterprises. Participants in one telepresence room interact with participants in a remote telepresence conference room. The remote participants are represented in high-definition, life-like size.

Webcams

Each participant in a video conference must have a Webcam attached to, or built into, his or her computer. Laptops from Apple, Asus, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Sony and others feature built-in Webcams. Webcams connect to your computer via USB and are available from Logitech, Microsoft, and Creative Labs for $125 or less.

The better low-cost Webcams today, such as Logitech's QuickCam Pro 9000 ($99), offer 2-megapixel image sensors. Webcams built into consumer laptops sometimes deliver lower-quality, 0.3-megapixel resolution.

Pay attention to the Webcam's frames-per-second (fps) rate. For the most fluid motion, look for a Webcam with 30 fps (some offer only 24 fps).

Usually, Webcams feature a built-in microphone. For the best audio quality, consider using a separate microphone connected to your computer. A headset with a microphone you can place close to your mouth might help people hear you more clearly.

The more bandwidth on your network, and the more horsepower your computer has, the better your video conferencing experience should be. For example, some Logitech Webcams when combined with Skype 3.6 promise "high-quality" video chats. But to experience it, each person participating in the chat must have a PC with a dual-core processor. 

Is Security a Concern?

Any online activity comes with security risks and video conferencing is no exception. For example, last year Yahoo had to tweak its Messenger IM software because hackers were fooling people into accepting malicious software disguised as video chat invitations. Overall, though, such threats have been rare.

What’s Next?

Affordable high-definition video conferencing for consumers is on its way, and it’s likely such services will work their way up into the business realm. Example: OoVoo is teaming with Quanta Computer to bring video conferencing to people with HDTVs. The service is likely to be available later this year at consumer-friendly prices.

James A. Martin has years of experience covering technology, and he's also the author of Traveler 2.0, a blog that provides technology news and views for travelers.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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