Web conferencing video improves, possible contender for desktop video

Web conferencing video tools have traditionally produced pixelated and jerky thumbnails, but vendors are now enabling high-quality and HD video at no additional cost.

As video collaboration expands its reach everywhere from the boardroom to mobile devices, enterprises expect high-quality experiences. That expectation holds true even when video is a secondary feature. Web conferencing video tools have traditionally produced pixelated and jerky thumbnails, but vendors are upping their game and enabling high-definition (HD) video in their platforms at no additional cost -- an improvement that has some unified communications (UC) pros saying Web conferencing video is a viable alternative to dedicated desktop video conferencing tools. 

I am interested in seeing the Web conferencing vendors [improve] their offerings in this space. I think it's a viable replacement for desktop video.

Steve Brescia, Manager of Enterprise Architecture
American Water

As users have grown comfortable with meeting and collaborating via Web conferencing, they have begun to demand more advanced features, including video conferencing, according to John Gledhill, director of higher education at Tribal Group, a London-based business services group.

"When you give people video, then video quality is quite important," said Gledhill, who supports the Web conferencing needs of 500 of his users with a subscription to Citrix Online's GoToMeeting platform. "If people are distracted from the main purpose of the meeting because the video's choppy, of poor quality or the lip sync's not very good … then video becomes more of a distraction."

Vendors improve Web conferencing video quality

Citrix recently announced it will start beta testing its platforms' newest feature, HDFaces, which will enable GoToMeeting sessions to accommodate up to six webcams at a time with a 640x480 resolution per participant, or 1920x960 for the entire screen, at 30 frames per second (fps). One-on-one sessions with two video participants will receive HD at 720p and 30 fps. General availability for the new feature is slated for early 2011.

Citrix is far from the only vendor improving its Web conferencing video capabilities. Cisco Systems plans to enhance video quality in WebEx from Common Interface Format (CIF) at 352x288 and 30 fps to quarter-HD at 640x360 and 30 fps -- about a twofold improvement in resolution. Microsoft Lync 2010, the latest generation of Office Communications Server (OCS), will feature Web conferencing video sessions with 720p at 30 fps for one-on-one sessions. The maximum resolution for Live Meeting, Microsoft's legacy standalone Web conferencing platform, was CIF.  

All three vendors have also updated video collaboration interfaces on their Web conferencing platforms to improve ease of use. The changes are blurring the lines between Web conferencing with video capabilities and desktop video conferencing with collaboration tools. The ambiguity will require UC pros to define their needs clearly, according to Roopam Jain, industry director at Frost & Sullivan. 

"We are seeing siloed communication tools come together," Jain said. "While desktop video conferencing products provide data collaboration capability, the focus is more on video. Web conferencing solutions are focused on better and robust data collaboration, document sharing, file transfer and things like enhanced video and social media integration to get business done better and faster."

WebEx's original video quality was geared toward giving meeting participants a sense of "what somebody else looked like, but it wasn't a very good experience if you wanted to have a more person-centric meeting versus a document-centric meeting," said David Hsieh, vice president of marketing for emerging technologies at Cisco.

"If you're going to use video conferencing, it's got to be useful. It's got to add something. So if you don't have that highest level of conferencing, what does video conferencing do?" said Elizabeth Cholawsky, vice president of products and services at Citrix Online, which has worked on HDFaces for the past two years. "If it's not in real-time or the picture is fuzzy, instead of enhancing the experience, it's going to detract from it."

UC pros see improved Web conferencing video as contender for desktop video

Gledhill, who is alpha testing HDFaces for his firm, said the high-quality and HD video in GoToMeeting will make it a better video collaboration tool for his enterprise than the dedicated desktop video conferencing products, which he has evaluated.

"The Web collaboration side of [desktop video conferencing products] was really poor … and [it would] always be in [a fixed] location," he said. "We can't afford to buy a Polycom unit to sit on every desk and in every person's living room. We would always end up with a small number of units in offices and people having to travel to those offices in order to use it."

Steve Brescia, manager of enterprise architecture at American Water, a water and wastewater utility company based in Voorhees, N.J., has deployed WebEx for Web conferencing and collaboration. Brescia estimated that less than 1% of American Water's WebEx sessions use video, but noted that most employees don't have laptops with integrated cameras or webcams. Nevertheless, improving Web conferencing video can only help adoption, he said.

"I am interested in seeing the Web conferencing vendors [improve] their offerings in this space," Brescia said. "I think it's a viable replacement for desktop video, especially with integrated functionality and reporting."

Ed Garcia, IT director at Horn Group, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, manages the firm's subscriptions for GoToMeeting. His users access GoToMeeting for presentations only, not video. Adoption of video collaboration hasn't been high enough to justify an enterprise-grade video conferencing system, leading users to rely mostly on consumer tools, such as Skype. But improvements to existing Web conferencing video tools could make adoption more cost-effective for smaller organizations, Garcia said.

"I'm glad [to see improvements] since that is one of the factors that determines the cost and value of the service," he said. "[Web conferencing platforms] are even more [of] a viable replacement to the desktop players now because you get high-quality video and the option to do multi-party conferencing."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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