Tune In to Low-Cost Video Conferencing

by Gerry Blackwell

Thanks to Web-based services, video conferencing costs less and saves you more just when you need it the most.

Technology is great when it solves a business problem. It’s even better when it saves you money in the process. Video conferencing can do both, and while the technology’s been around for some time, a lot of factors make video conferencing more appealing and affordable for small businesses than ever before.

Think about it: the recession, the rising cost of travel, environmental concerns, the emergence of virtual companies and telework, high-speed Internet and faster computers —all of these influences make video conferencing worth considering.

Big companies build their own on-premise video conferencing systems to reduce business travel, increase employee productivity and improve collaboration. But most small firms can’t afford such systems. But they can take advantage of new Web-based video conferencing services that in some cases require only a computer, broadband Internet connection and a webcam.

Service Providers

We focused on two providers: OoVoo, a start-up originally from Israel, and Avistar, a desktop video conferencing pioneer. OoVoo began as a consumer-oriented video chat provider in 2007, but earlier this year added a low-cost business-conferencing service. Avistar has been selling on-premise systems to businesses for 15 years. It launched its hosted service in 2007.

OoVoo, which has operations in Israel, Atlanta and New York, claims to have more than seven million users. Only “a single-digit percentage” pay for premium service, however. Most are consumers use the company’s free basic service. It’s too early to gauge response to the new business service, said OoVoo’s CEO Philippe Schwartz. “But we think we’ve hit a very sweet spot for small businesses, especially given the economy,” he said.

Avistar sells through channel partners and counts the number of “seats” or individual licensed users, and said it had more than 100,000 last year. Only 20,000 of those used the hosted service, most of them in small businesses with 25 or fewer users.

There are many other service providers, including Skype, which offers free video conferencing between individual Skype users (you pay extra for multi-participant conferences), and Web-conferencing providers such as WiredRed, MegaMeeting and market leader WebEx, now owned by Cisco Systems.

Cost and Quality

Most video- and Web-conferencing providers offer a subscription model. OoVoo charges about $10 a month per user, Avistar between $30 and $40. Given powerful enough computers at each end, adequate webcams and optimal conditions on the Internet, even free services like Skype can deliver surprisingly good quality video conferences. But as always, you get what you pay for.

It’s important to keep in mind that none of these services can approach the video quality or reliability of on-premise systems that use dedicated conferencing equipment and dedicated or shared managed communications links.

On-premise systems, however, can cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars per location for equipment and room appointments, and hundreds to thousands of dollars a month for communications. Cloud-based services offer small firms a way to use video conferencing without spending scarce – or non-existent – capital or significantly increasing operational costs.

The Case for the Cloud

Hosted or cloud-based services offer some additional advantages. Because the service provider manages the hardware and software, you don’t need technical expertise in-house. Employees can use these services with little or no training.

With on-premise systems, it’s often difficult to include participants outside your own company because of technical incompatibilities among different vendors’ equipment.

Cloud-based services use the public Internet and typically offer free downloadable client software, making it easy to include participants anywhere in the world, using any computer.

Avistar’s service has the capability to make connections between its service and participants with traditional on-premise video conferencing systems.

Cloud-based services do have downsides, of course. You pay forever, and you pay for each user. The longer you use the service and the more people you add, the closer you get to a cross-over point at which it becomes cheaper to buy a system.

“If you get into several hundred users and beyond about 24 months, it probably makes sense to consider an on-premise system,” said Stephen Epstein, Avistar’s chief marketing officer.

Choose a Provider

Which Web-based solution will work best for you? It depends in part on the capabilities you need most: Web conferencing – the ability to share documents and computer screens and make online presentations – or pure video conferencing.

Most of the solutions we’ve mentioned offer both, but tend to be stronger in one or the other. Avistar and OoVoo both focus mainly on video conferencing, but do allow meeting organizers to show documents or slide shows to participants during a conference.

Services such as WebEx offer more sophisticated features. Meeting conveners can temporarily hand control to another participant, for example. Participants can annotate and mark up documents onscreen in real time.

“Typically, if a customer decides it’s Web conferencing that is more important for them, they go with a WebEx. If they believe video conferencing is more important, they choose Avistar.” said Epstein. “They [WebEx] offer video but it’s very primitive. We offer Web conferencing, but it’s very primitive.”

Quality Versus Price

Both Avistar and OoVoo claim their main advantage over Web conferencing competitors is superior video, delivered by proprietary systems that ensure the best possible quality for the type of connection and end point.

But even if they do an equally good job of video processing, free and low-cost services that work over the public Internet, such as ooVoo, will inevitably deliver less consistent quality than services, like Avistar’s. Those services work over a dedicated Internet connection to a managed IP network — i.e., no sharing resources — and can afford to assign more hardware and software resources to each call at its data centers.

“For clients who can’t afford more than $10 a month, OoVoo is a viable option,” Epstein conceded. “But typically, if you pay for video, you expect fluid [motion] and good resolution.” Video quality with OoVoo, he claimed, is less consistent and degrades further as you add more participants. (OoVoo supports up to six on a conference.)

The Experience

We were not able to test the Avistar service, but we did use OoVoo to interview Schwartz. It’s easy to set up and use, it works a lot like Skype, and the video quality is impressive. But one test call doesn’t tell the whole story. If you’re considering a service such as ooVoo, take advantage of the free trial offers and give the service a vigorous workout before committing to a subscription.

In our test, over fast Internet connections at both ends and using powerful laptops, motion was smooth most of the time, with good synchronization between video and audio. A “hi-resolution” mode delivers clearer, sharper images, but it also uses more CPU cycles and network bandwidth.

We experienced some delay, but not enough to make conversation awkward – although it would have been more problematic in a less-structured conversation in which participants were more likely to talk over each other.

Most of the time there were only two participants, but at one point Schwartz added two others. At that point, the video windows shrank to fit on the screen – from about 4 x 3.5 inches on my 13-inch laptop screen during the one-on-one conversation – and the video did degrade a little. It was slightly jerkier and less precisely synchronized, but it was still acceptable.

Bottom Line

Online video conferencing – even with fairly inexpensive services – works. It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough to add a valuable dimension to online meetings. You won’t need video on every call, but in any meeting where body language and facial expression might give valuable clues to meaning and attitude, especially in first-time encounters, it’s at the very least a nice to have.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Aug 25th 2009
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