InfoComm: The Dawn of Mobile Videoconferencing (Thanks, Apple)

apple-facetime-0312This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.

Apple made a little product announcement earlier this month. Something about a new iPad. It got mixed reviews: Some people expected more significant changes to the wildly popular tablet.

But AV professionals monitoring the iPad announcement need hear only three things about the new product: 4G, HD, and quad-core. Taken together, those iPad features describe an instantly viable, high-definition videoconferencing endpoint — one that’s likely to sell tens of millions of units and push an entire generation toward mobile videoconferencing, with all the technology design, systems engineering, and planning changes that entails.

Certainly, the new Apple iPad isn’t the first mobile computing device to support videoconferencing (or video calling, if you will) — high definition or otherwise. You’ll recall Tangberg’s Movi client (now incorporated into a platform Cisco Systems is calling Jabber), or even Cisco’s own Cius tablet, designed to support 720p videoconferencing. And vendors such as LifeSize (ClearSea), Polycom (RealPresence Mobile), Radvision (ScopiaMobile), and Vidyo (VidyoMobile) have made great strides in enabling high-quality videoconferencing on today’s mobile devices, limited as some of those devices might be in their ability to handle video. But when you consider that the iPad now has the processing power to crank through H.264 and other streams, a screen and camera that support 720p and 1080p, a wireless network connection (two, if you count Wi-Fi) that offers the necessary bandwidth for HD video links, and that it’s already backordered, it’s definitely time for AV pros, their clients, and their IT counterparts to start building systems that support pervasive videoconferencing. Because it’s one thing to Skype from a smartphone; it’s another to patch into a telepresence room from a new iPad or similarly powered mobile device while sitting in an airport lounge.

“A lot of people are still unaware that you can do mobile videoconferencing,” says Matt McNeil, CTS-D®, chief marketing officer at Conference Technologies. “They think you’ll get the quality of Skype rather than what they’re used to with their room videoconferencing systems. Others are surprised at how good the mobile technology has gotten in the last year.”

The age of mobile videoconferencing is officially upon us, thanks in no small part to the iPad. And it will rely on the convergence of AV and IT like no other technology before it. Why? Because AV professionals still own the videoconferencing room experience, but IT will always have responsibility over the computing devices — mobile and otherwise — that workers use.

According to a recent survey of videoconferencing users by Wainhouse Research, 36 percent of respondents said their organizations had already deployed videoconferencing-enabled tablets; 16 percent were actually engaging in mobile videoconferencing; and half said their organization planned to test or deploy it within the year.

“This is the whole new paradigm that everyone’s talked about,” says John Vitale, Vice President of Products at AVI-SPL. “Within the last year, mass adoption of new devices has started driving mobile videoconferencing.”

The BYOD Effect

We may still be a long way from having a desktop videoconferencing system on every desk in an enterprise. Replacing what’s already there can be a costly undertaking. But when it comes to mobile computing, enterprises these days are entertaining a policy known as “bring your own device” (BYOD). The logic behind BYOD is that workers are buying their own iPads, smartphones and laptop computers anyway, why not come out with an IT policy that lets them use their own devices to access secure network resources, check corporate e-mail and — yes— even engage in enterprise videoconferences while on the go? The company, school, or other organization avoids the capital expense of outfitting its workforce with new devices, but at the same time it enjoys the productivity benefits of mobile videoconferencing, distance learning and other collaborative applications enabled by fully equipped end users.

“We’ve been doing PC-based videoconferencing for quite a while, and IT departments are directly involved in that because you’re dealing with someone’s computer, mostly laptops,” says Vitale. “So there’s been mobile conferencing for a while. But what’s changing now is we’re getting into a non-PC world. Let’s address the elephant in the room: Apple has driven the paradigm shift in what people are capable of doing with mobile, handheld devices. But that doesn’t change the infrastructure or what we’ve been doing on the PC side. Now we just have to extend those capabilities into the public space.”

Think security appliances, network gateways, bridging, and managed services. In many situations, cloud-based videoconferencing systems will be necessary to schedule video calls or provide ad-hoc connectivity. Large AV integrators that have a services business or relationships with service providers have that much more to offer customers. Such managed services can also help solve the thorny problem of patching in video calls from one type of mobile device, running a particular software client, into a videoconferencing room with a system that may or may not support it. Videoconferencing vendors have started taking seriously the call for interoperable platforms (some, such as LifeSize and Vidyo are further down the road toward interoperability). “But we’re still 10 years away” from seamless interoperability, says Eric Snider, CTS-D, Senior Engineer at Conference Technologies.

“For my last few big designs,” Snider says, “I wasn’t meeting with the facilities manager. I was meeting with the IT professionals. The codec is just a box. Designs now are about scalability, not about individual rooms.”

“Mobile videoconferencing pulls you outside the private network. Now you have to design a system that will allow devices that are on the public Internet access to the communication resources that are found in the private network,” says Vitale. “You have to deal with security, firewall traversal—for media as well as for authentication and session. These tools and capabilities already exist, but sometimes it’s a shift in thinking to accommodate what customers want to do with video. But because of demand from users, clients really can’t say no.”

A Whole New Sale

The way integrators approach videoconferencing design in order to support mobile users has a lot to do with networking and security. But it also entails business processes and planning, specifically as they relate to the way clients say they want to use video in their communications.

“We have to look at the use case,” says Vitale. “Mobility changes the way our clients use video. We need to redesign, for instance, the way they do multipoint calls, the way they set up their dial plans, taking into account things like where callers will be. You have a shift in thinking about time zones and the different types of networks they need to support.”

Due to the nature of mobile videoconferencing, the use case shifts from a scheduled video call over reserved corporate resources to one of somebody picking up a device as if it were a phone and just video-calling a colleague. Not to mention, opening up an organization’s videoconferencing infrastructure to its own mobile users may inevitably lead to opening it up to business partners, prospective clients and other third parties who may have their own mobile devices running their own videoconferencing clients. All this must be planned for. “Customers come to us and say, ‘We don’t know how to do this, but we need a plan to roll out these capabilities,’” Vitale explains. “At this point it’s no longer an AV consultation; it’s about network engineering or video engineering and design.”

Which brings us to an important point. If AV integrators and consultants — professionals who are expert at designing and installing videoconferencing and telepresence systems for board rooms, classrooms, and more—want to stay relevant in a field where the technology application (videoconferencing) is moving rapidly beyond their grasp (to IT-controlled mobile devices), they should approach it differently.

“If we continue to lead with the room, we’ll be stuck in the room and always be the second guy into the project,” say Vitale. “We’re shifting our strategy to be the first company in, talking to the IT department, or the CIO or CEO, and asking, ‘What is your overall strategy? What tools do your end-users need to help them communicate better?’ The room, now, is nothing but another endpoint. It’s a big codec, a secondary part of the sale.”

That’s not to say that mobile videoconferencing is a threat to room-based solutions. According to Wainhouse Research, enterprises believe that the influx of mobile devices will actually boost interest in room-based videoconferencing systems. “We don’t believe that mobile videoconferencing is any threat to the demand for installed room-based systems,” says Mark Mayfield, senior analyst at Wainhouse and an adjunct faculty member for InfoComm University™. “In effect, mobile videoconferencing will make the pie larger and create more demand for videoconferencing in general.”

The question is, can AV integrators get comfortable asking the questions that get them a bigger piece of that pie? Will they develop the expertise on-staff to delve beyond the conference room? “I used to fuss about it all the time,” says Paul Depperschmidt, CTS, head of global AV integration market development at Cisco and 2007 InfoComm Educator of the Year. “Here they just did this gorgeous conference room or board room for the CEO, but did they ask the client what they’re doing with it? That simple question could have opened up bridge sales and firewall sales and multipoint deployments, but many integrators aren’t comfortable asking what’s on the other side of the Cat-5 jack.”

When AV professionals can come up with a total solution — a master design — it will necessarily include codecs, custom room integration, pro AV, mobile devices, mobile device management solutions, PC-based videoconferencing, and more. They will all gel together into an enterprise solution to the client’s videoconferencing challenges. In other words, don’t lead with a room-based videoconferencing sale unless all you want is the room business and a long-term relationship with the facilities manager. Experts say that room-based videoconferencing will certainly be a lucrative business — given the ongoing explosion of video communications — but not as lucrative to a growing AV integration business as the enterprisewide video infrastructure model.

“AV guys will play in this mobile, networkwide field, but they can’t come in and just do one piece of it,” says Depperschmidt. He cites RTS Unified Communications, based in New York City, as one of several integration companies that fundamentally changed their go-to-market strategy to offer a full range of network-based communications solutions. “They hired the people they needed to hire to do this years ago.”

“I’ve made the mistake, earlier in my career and at other companies, of focusing on the technology first,” says Snider. “The first questions we should be asking our clients are, ‘What are we trying to accomplish here? Can you explain to me how your meetings operate?’ Then allow the videoconferencing technology to build around their answers.”

Says AVI-SPL’s Vitale, “We’re a traditional AV company and it’s always been a case of, ‘Lead with the room or the auditorium or whatever the client is asking for.’ We have to stop waiting for them to ask for something and go in there and tell them what we can do for them.”

When it comes to mobile videoconferencing, what AV companies can do is often more than they or their clients think they can do.