Never Mind the Quality
As I rarely fail to point out I've been in the Video Conferencing industry a long long time. I've talked about the importance of quality endlessly over the years.
I was wrong.
I started with the idea that quality was a one-way street; once you experienced something better, like a business class airline seat, or a CD, or Blu-ray DVD, you would struggle to go back. I was wrong.
That doesn't mean quality doesn't matter, it just means it only matters a little bit.
Now before I go further into this let me define the definition of quality for the purposes of this article. I will define it as the quality of the individual call. The number of pixels, the color fidelity, the frame rate and latency.
These things do matter, but many players in the industry have perhaps lost sight of what really matters in pursuit of an ever higher quality of call.
So if I've been wrong what does matter and why?
Users have to believe the technology is going to work, ALL THE TIME. 99% of business technology users couldn't care less how the technology work. It could be a bowl of warm tapioca for all they care. They have an actual job to do that has nothing to do with technology, they don't think it's cool, it needs to work, period. Nothing else.
The vast majority of business people have never used video conferencing; they've managed their entire careers with crappy 3.1Khz audio on a 4lb box with handsets on their desks. Pretty much ANYTHING is an upgrade. But they are unlikely to try using a technology they don't believe to be reliable.
To be useful, the technology needs to be trusted to work faultlessly.
Ease of use
As Jerry Seinfeld and I have both stated before, people are more afraid of public humiliation than they are of death. So the chances of a typical business user being prepared to "have a go" at initiating a video conferencing call in front of their colleagues, clients and suppliers is practically zero.
Room-based video conferencing suppliers have for years pushed the idea that the user interface on the room-based technologies is better than desktop devices because it's simpler, and a lean back, rather than lean forward experience. I've come to the conclusion that's poppycock. Users want things that are familiar, not easy.
Plenty of people used Word Perfect 5.0 in 1990, and didn't have a problem with it at all. Once a user interface is learned, user confidence increases and they are much much more likely to experiment and use it. Even more importantly, with video conferencing they can try it in the privacy of their own offices or homes. Get the hang of it before that important meeting.
Familiarity beats cool, every, single time.
The Buyers are not the Users
Very rarely is the specifier of the technology the same group of people as the user community it was intended for. Many of us with teenage children know the difference between a specifier and a user. Every 16-year-old car user wants an F-150 or a BMW M3; most get a Toyota Corolla.
Toyota's are the most reliable, sensible and boring cars ever made. They are what's bought by sensible people who don't want a puddle of oil on the driveway, and a phone call from a stranded teenager at 2 a.m. IT departments buy Toyota from the IT industry. They're not interested in the highest speed, or the coolest looks; they want to NEVER get a call about it, and for the users to moan less. Ecstatic users is beyond the wildest dreams of IT departments.
IT departments go to work to not get fired.
Want evidence? Think of the last time you rang and thanked your IT department when everything went right. Done it? Have you heard of anyone who has? Ever? Thought not.
Users just want to communicate with everyone else. The look of incomprehension when told that services or devices are incompatible is real. Additionally having to check that the other party even has a video conferencing-capable device is still real. Luckily this is going away. One has to thank Logitech, Skype, Google, Apple and a bunch of others for at least seeding the market with tools at a scalable price point.
Salespeople love cool features
Salespeople love showing off the new features. It's why it's a lot more interesting to sell an F-150 Raptor, than it is a Toyota Corolla. Selling reliability is dull. Every salesperson wants to leave the client agog with the quality, amazed by how cool their technology is. I fully understand that, but time and again the technology has a brief period of use, and then after a few embarrassing moments it gets quietly forgotten. Video conferencing is about the only technology I know of where this happens. I've never heard of a client say that they tried audio or web conferencing, but after a short buzz of activity it simply stopped being used.
But what about Telepresence and HD Video Conferencing and all that then?
Telepresence has ultimately been a failure, simply because the cost of ownership was so high that it couldn't scale. Having no one to ring can put a very serious damper on the utilisation of any technology. A second note to make on telepresence is that many of these systems weren't actually High Definition. The HP Halo was 480p, the Teliris, often even lower quality than that. What many users liked about telepresence wasn't the quality of the call so much as the white glove experience - one in which they didn't have to know anything about the technology and could simply get on with their meetings.
HD Video Conferencing
Very few users experience true HD video conferencing. Most room-based endpoints don't have the capability to produce 1080p images, or IT departments are unwilling to give them the bandwidth and very few Cloud providers offer it as part of their service. Very few Cloud suppliers even mention the quality they offer, and the users haven't even noticed. HD video conferencing (720p at 30fps) was first shown in 2005 and the vast majority of users don't even experience that quality 11 years later, and it seems no one cares.
Today the Video Conferencing industry is changing. Users are simply looking for something better than web conferencing and a telephone, that works every time and doesn't embarrass them to death. As the market moves from a push sale to a pull one, the bells and whistles become less important, and ease of use, ubiquity and reliability become the most important selling points.
It will be interesting to see which manufacturers embrace the Toyota model, and which keep pushing the Raptor.
It might not be a soaring vision, but those suppliers who work that out are going to do very well. Those folks trying to sell F-150 Raptors to folks who simply want their kids to get to school and back, alive, less so.