Pros and Cons of Desktop Video

My regular followers will know that I recently attended the LifeSize Tech Day, held at their Austin, TX HQ. As per my recap post, it was a great experience; not just to see their offerings up close, but also to be immersed in the video space for a day and a half. In the spirit of using video to collaborate and extend our group experience beyond the onsite visit, LifeSize is engaging us in a series of occasional video-based briefings to more fully explore various aspects of this market.

There is always something new to learn in sessions like this, and last week they did one on desktop video. Ironically, I had yet-to-be-explained technical difficulties logging in, but was able to follow enough to gather some takeaways to share with you here. This actually merits a brief sidebar that touches on an unspoken issue which all vendors struggle with - simply getting video to work.

When you're living with video conferencing tools all day long - as these vendors typically do - it's easy to forget how complex the underlying technology is, especially with all the different standards and interoperability issues. The seamless one-touch experience is wonderful when it works as advertised, but we've all lived through much worse.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying this to pick on LifeSize. They certainly know what they're doing, and all vendors have issues here. It's an important sidebar, however, since first impressions are critical for the adoption of any new technology - especially something as intimate as video.

I think it's fair to say that many people - perhaps the majority - are skeptical about using video. Some of it is generational, and people on my side of 40 are not reflexively in a rush to go straight to video when using tools like Skype. By the way, I'm saying this as someone who is interviewed on TV from time to time, so I know what it's like to be on camera.

Another reason, though, is basic ease of use. Whether you see this as perception or reality, ease of use is not typically what comes to mind right away with video - it's almost like you expect there will be problems. When things work smoothly, it's a great experience, but when there are glitches with video, we tend to tune out real fast and not bother much trying to fix it - because we don't know what to do.

So, holding that thought in mind, if you think the tiny hiccup I had with LifeSize was an I-told-you-so moment, how do you think the analyst community felt this Tuesday when Siemens did their much-hyped re-brand for Unify? This was the biggest corporate level refresh I can remember in this space, so there was a lot riding on those first impressions.

Well, as anyone trying to watch the live video stream would attest, it was very problematic. I was hardly alone in not being able to get the feed, and when it did kick in, it was so intermittent as to be simply unwatchable. I'm not much of a twitter fan, but this was truly a good example of its value by seeing in real time that others were having the same experiences. There were tweets from all over the world with the same problem, and I had to feel badly for Unify here. Definitely a case where you live and die by the same sword.

So much for the short sidebar.

In the interest of your attention span, let me quickly come back to the topic - desktop video. Basically, what I wanted to say was how the briefing reviewed the use cases, along with the pros and cons of the applications we commonly use. Both video conferencing/calling and web conferencing were cited, with the leading exponents being Skype, Google Hangouts, WebEx and GotoMeeting.

We all know how these work, and they're easy choices for many reasons. However, it was instructive to review the limitations, such as variable video quality, limited scalability, number of steps required to get a session going, lack of support for multiparty calls and common directory integration to support everyone you want on the session.

To me, this speaks to the "good enough" nature of these applications. Nobody is expecting telepresence here, but there are plenty of use cases where the fit is good. For a lot of conferencing needs, the quality doesn't have to be HD, and if the groups are small and the nature of the meeting is fairly informal, the cost/quality tradeoff is acceptable.

No issue there, and where LifeSize comes to the table is for situations where "good enough" is not good enough. If there's one thing I've learned about video, it's the breadth of scenarios where it brings value. LifeSize does a great job explaining this, and in short, the more formal the meeting and the higher the stakes, the better the solution you're going to need.

This doesn't mean you stop using the likes of Skype or WebEx - there will always be a place for these. Rather, the higher-end solutions like LifeSize become additive to your overall toy box. When you need a better experience and a more engaging collaboration environment, it's just good business to have a room-based system where a team can gather and interact at a high level with remote co-workers.

There's a huge mid-market that doesn't need or want telepresence, but has both showing and sharing requirements that go beyond what OTT Web-based applications can deliver. LifeSize sees this as their sweet spot, and after our Tech Day experience, I can see why.

I'll be posting again when they have another deep dive session with our group, and hopefully will have a better sense by then as to how well that market opportunity is panning out.