GV – August 1998

Videoconferencing Prepares for the Future
By Sheldon Liebman

At the recent INFOCOMM show in Dallas, there were a lot of companies showing videoconferencing equipment. In a few months, those same companies and many more will be at TeleCon in Anaheim. As we move from the former and toward the latter, it seems like this is a good time to take a look at the desktop videoconferencing market and discuss some of the issues it’s facing.

Over the past few years, Microsoft has been creating a larger and larger presence in the conferencing marketplace, especially as it relates to conferencing over the Internet. The company’s NetMeeting software, which is an integral part of Internet Explorer 4.0, supports a number of meeting functions including audioconferencing, videoconferencing, shared whiteboard, chat and file transfer.

As Microsoft builds more and more functionality into the core pieces of the Windows Operating System, it becomes more and more difficult for other companies to compete, especially when the functionality is available for no extra charge. Point to Point videoconferencing with NetMeeting only requires that both parties be connected to a network or to the Internet and have video capture devices connected to their computers.

While the feature set of NetMeeting might not measure up to the fancier features of standalone teleconferencing systems, especially in the area of multi-point conferencing, the price of the package (or lack of a price) makes it very desirable.

Video Capture Devices
One of the biggest problems with desktop videoconferencing is purchasing, installing and configuring video capture devices. The wide variety of computer systems available and the large number of capture devices can result in system incompatibilities that are difficult or impossible to correct. This is especially true with small office/home office systems, which are often purchased from second-tier computer manufacturers. The introduction of Windows ’98 promises to make this process a lot easier, especially with newer computers.

One of the few solid advantages of Windows ’98 is support for the Universal Serial Bus. Many newer computers, both desktop and notebook, include USB ports. With USB, devices can be plugged in while the computer is running and are automatically recognized and configured (assuming the drivers are written properly). Already, USB video cameras have been introduced and are available at very reasonable prices (under $100 for black and white, under $200 for color). With these cameras, the hassles of installing and configuring a video capture device largely disappear.

Connection Speeds
Conferencing over a LAN is a piece of cake compared to holding a videoconference using a 28,800 baud modem. Of course, there are lots of choices in between and this is one area that doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. A few years ago, everyone assumed that ISDN was the answer, but there are still parts of the country (like New Mexico) where service is limited. In the meantime, competing technologies like ADSL (Advanced Digital Subscriber Line) are being developed and many people feel that ISDN’s days are numbered. Add in cable modem technology and DirectPC satellite receivers and there are a lot of different ways (and speeds) to connect.

The more different ways people have to connect, the more sense it makes to use the Internet as the backbone for videoconferencing. If you do, it doesn’t matter if the two parties are connected at different speeds. It’s important to note, however, that cable modems and satellite receivers don’t provide fast communications in both directions. These two connection methods are designed to let users download information a lot faster than they can upload it.

Competing Protocols
Desktop videoconferencing systems typically use a different protocol (H.323) from standalone systems (H.320). At last year’s TeleCon show, companies like 3Com introduced standalone products that could be used with desktop conferencing systems. More recently, Intel introduced the TeamStation System 4.0, which is both H.320 and H.323 compliant. Based on a Windows NT workstation, this new product is set up for ISDN or LAN-based conferencing and tightly integrates Microsoft T1.20 NetMeeting data conferencing tools.

Make Your Reservations for TeleCon XVIII
The alphabet soup of protocols and how they can be used together is a major focus of this year’s TeleCon show. A group of tutorials has been developed for the show by the IMTC (International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium) that will promote discussion on the current and future developments of international standards and related interoperability topics.

In addition to covering the state of the art of current technology for IP and Internet-based conferencing, TeleCon will also present information on Internet2, the next generation of the Internet, and discuss its effect on communications.

Over 130,000 square feet of exhibit space has been sold for this year’s show, a new record. Attendance is expected to top 25,000 people for the first time as well. TeleCon has always been a show that’s very focused on the conferencing industry. Since videoconferencing is becoming both easier to accomplish and more confusing at the same time, let’s hope this year’s show will answer more questions than it asks.

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