It doesn't seem long ago that the technology of cellphones — or even wireless home phones — amazed the world with the ability to connect people in distant countries as if they were standing in the same room. In the new millennium, a clear overseas voice isn’t enough to impress anyone. And for small businesses, it’s even more crucial to act as early adopters and invest in the latest technology to compete with the major players in the industry.
Video conferencing is a way for small businesses to not only keep up with the big companies, but also cut back on travel expenses, considerably reduce their carbon footprint and increase productivity. Advanced video conferencing solutions make it a snap to connect with remote workers, train new employees, and host meetings with employees, clients or investors.
With any of the newer video conferencing systems, dropped calls, garbled voices and pixilated images are a thing of the past. The latest videoconferencing technology utilizes high definition broadcasting for crystal clear sound and image that duplicates the feel of boardroom meetings.
The Nuts and Bolts of Video Conferencing
Most small business systems utilize software based on one of two servers. SIMPLE (anything but simple to non-techies) stands for Session initiation protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions. SIMPLE combines what's known as SIP (session initiation protocol) with IMP (instant messaging and presence) to create standards for video conferencing technology. The second and equally efficient system uses XMPP, Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol. Simply put, these servers enable machines of all types to communicate.
Setting up virtual meetings for first timers can be quite simple. Video conferencing systems rely heavily on a high speed internet connection, so having a reliable internet provider is first and foremost. The only hardware devices you’ll need for basic video conferencing are a webcam and microphone or headset. Most computers sold today include built-in cameras, but basic webcams are relatively inexpensive and can be found at electronics stores or online. For more expansive video ability, try some of the cameras and audio equipment designed specifically for video conferencing.
Finding the Right Conferencing Service
Depending on the needs and budget of an individual business, there is a range of interactivity, features and price points for the various video conferencing services available today.
One of the easiest and most affordable services is Skype 5.3 for Windows, which gives users HD quality video calls, crystal clear audio, Facebook integration and other communication tools for $8.99 a month. Companies using Skype can also expect lower phone bills, as most calls are made through an internet connection, even when they are voice-only.
PGi's iMeet has excellent audio and video quality and allows up to 15 people to get together on a video call. Once you're on a call, it's relatively easy to share documents, files, videos and web pages. iMeet seems like a great option for doing sales presentations and product demonstrations over the web because of the high-quality audio-video connections. At $70 per month, it's a bit more than some of the other options but it might be worth it if you use it for business.
Cisco's Webex offers a combination of audio or video conferencing with desktop sharing, eliminating the need to e-mail multiple documents or files to the group, for under $50 a month. This service is perfect for product demonstrations, sales presentations or online training. Advanced features of Webex include whiteboarding, note-taking and annotation that can be done by anyone in the meeting, as well as one-click recording of audio or video meetings for future sharing or review.
Several years ago, Cisco's telepresence wowed the video conferencing industry with the incredible ability to place live images of people anywhere in the world on a virtual platform together, appearing as if they are in one place conversing with their audience or other meeting participants. Their recently unveiled product, ūmi telepresence, is a similar concept designed for a home or small office, utilizing HDTV and a broadband connection. At a cost of $600 for the hardware and a monthly service fee of about ten bucks, ūmi can give small businesses an edge on their competitors without breaking the bank.
For small businesses who like to hang out with the bigwigs, Intercall is the world's largest provider of video conferencing solutions, alongside Polycom and Norwegian-based Tandberg, now owned by Cisco. But size isn’t everything, and the people’s choice is usually the cheap and easy solution.
Free options for businesses with tiny budgets include oovoo, tokbox, tinychat and ivisit, offering desktop and document sharing, mobile meetings and more. And lest you think you’ll only get what you pay for, these companies are dedicated to providing a high quality service with the hopes of building brand recognition and loyalty, a concept very familiar to small businesses.
The Future of Video Conferencing
The video conferencing industry is experiencing rapid growth and attracting the attention of some of the tech world's biggest movers and shakers. Skype, with 170 million users and a growth rate of 40 percent a year, looked attractive enough to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, to make an unsolicited offer of $8.5 billion to acquire the company. If the deal goes through, this will be Microsoft’s largest and most expensive acquisition in their thirty-six year history. And investors who purchased Skype from E-bay in 2009 for $2 billion will receive three times their initial investment from the sale.
That's quite a bit of name-dropping for an industry that’s been around for just over two decades. But with the rising cost of travel and a greater awareness and attention to preserving the planet and the budget, the future of video conferencing is sure to see continued growth and profit.
Know more about video conferencing options for small businesses? Leave us a note in the comments below.
Photos: David Ebner/ZUMA Press; PGi iMeet; Cisco Webex