John Stepp, the President of Free Tech Consultants authored a recent blog post on videoconferencing interoperability that has created a lot of reaction. Here is a follow-up to the piece, an interview with Vidtel CEO, Scott Wharton. Vidtel is an inter-enterprise videoconferencing service located in Mountain View, California. This wide ranging discussion between John and Scott touches on the future of videoconferencing and the necessary directions the industry must take to achieve ubiquitous deployment and enjoyment for everyone.
John Stepp: Vidtel claims to be the first open videoconferencing network to allow HD videoconferencing between disparate networks. Which systems can you connect today?
Scott Wharton: We can connect to almost all the main standards based high-definition systems. Those include Polycom, Tandberg, LifeSize, Sony, and CounterPath on the soft client side. We are adding more every day that support largely the SIP standard.
JS: My recent blog post advocated the necessity of videoconference providers to include Skype connectivity to foster B2C videoconferencing. This to me is the key to growing their business and truly helping enterprises to communicate with their customers. What are your plans to connect Skype users to the Enterprise and how might it work?
SW: We definitely agree with that. When we look at the videoconferencing market we see a lot of islands for people doing HD conferencing. Part of the challenge is that people sometimes on the other island are able to talk to each other but more often than not as you know, people don’t have high definition video. I think the ability to easily bring in someone else and use a client like Skype that is on everyone’s desktop is a great idea. So part of what we’re doing at Vidtel is we’re building some technology to allow Skype users to be able to call high definition video users and vice-versa so that you can have a company internally that has lots of people on high definition systems but then anyone else whether they are internal or external should be able to at least call through with the lowest common denominator which is Skype today. And then give people a choice whether they want to use basic connectivity or something higher end. But first and foremost we think that Skype is kind of the de facto standard for anybody being able to make the call on a PC or cell phone and be part of the video discussion.
JS: I read a blog last week from a typically forward thinking telecom/call center manufacturer. The net-net of the article is that video is being forced down customers throats and that it is uncomfortable for people in general. Yet the kids in my sandwich shop texting away on their smart phones consider it easy, second nature and mainstream. How do we bridge the gap?
SW: Well, I think like anything in the technology world, when people get excited about technology there are certain places where you find that it is useful and sometimes people get carried away and they suggest that you can use things everywhere even where it is inappropriate. Part of the way I look at it is that videoconferencing is something that is part of a continuum of the way people communicate. So they communicate text, IM or voice and we get together in person and I think there is a huge gap in the middle where people want to see each other to get more information than they get from voice or text but don’t necessarily want to be encumbered with having to visit someone in person. Now you can’t necessarily share a beer or be able to see family or spend really quality time with people over video all the time. But certainly for a lot of the day to day interactions videoconferencing can be a great solution for almost anyone. So I think kind of the in between is we have to find places that it is appropriate for doing video and it would be in many cases, but not all and not try to push people into situations where they don’t want to use it. I think you and I know that with the younger generation, they are just growing up with videoconferencing and it is something that you always do just like we grew with TV and it is something we always do and maybe your grandparents only thought of radio and TV came later. So part of it will be a generational shift. I think that part of it is making sure that we apply videoconferencing in the right places and not try to force it down people’s throats where it is not appropriate.
JS: Your answer gives me another idea; perhaps beer over videoconferencing might be a market to research. Your answer is also a good lead in for the next question. I see a need to create a DVD on how to feel comfortable in a videoconference environment. I see so much push back on the need for video from people that would have no qualms having a face-to-face meeting or a telephone conversation. How can we make video second nature for everyone?
SW: Well, I think part of it is the quality of the experience. If you look at the adoption for videoconferencing and then some of the studies that were done on how end users rated it. In the early days when the quality was not quite as good, the end users reported that they were tired and that they did not find that it added as much value as was promised. Today because the quality is so much better, it’s a lot easier and a lot more natural for people to have a conversation. So my experience especially in the last couple of years at Vidtel is that the best way to get people used to video is using it and seeing a demonstration of it. I find that in a lot of cases unless people are familiar with what they can get from a quality point of view, they do not know what they are missing. The good news is in the last two years, Skype has changed the question from “why do I need video?’ to Skype is big and they compare everything to Skype. But I think if you compare it to quality as similar to TV, then people would use it more. I think the second thing is maybe some simple tips on etiquette and using videoconferencing. There are some things like etiquette lighting and other things like where to sit with the camera and make sure you are not slamming your hands into the table when you are wearing ring and things like that. But I think a lot of it is similar to etiquette of how you work with people and most of it is just using it and getting the hang of it. I think the combination of those two will really help.
JS: I often get funny comments about my company name Free Tech Consultants. Vidtel is one of those free technologies offering free connectivity for enterprises. There is also a company called Google that has been fairly successful. What is your plan to grow Vidtel into a company that offers some free services while creating profits?
SW: Part of what we are doing, referring to your previous question about getting people to experience video and getting them expertise working with a company like Vidtel, is we are offering free connectivity services for videoconferencing. So if you have a high end device and you want to be able to use it to get through your firewall and call through to people outside your company, we’re offering a free service for you to do that today, both to get that experience and to see how good it can be. And to be able to have people be comfortable with Vidtel, to be able to show we’re a quality company and that we know how to deliver high quality video calls to almost everyone. Part of our strategy is to employ somewhat of a freemium model where we want to have some basic product that’s always free to allow people to test or have very low commitment and then for customers who are using our product more who are really getting value out of it to make money by charging them an appropriate amount of money for using it. But do it in a way that’s less costly than the current solutions and a lot better than some of the free lower quality support solutions offered today. We really see a huge void in the middle where there are a lot of businesses who would pay a reasonable amount of money to get something high quality with support and quite frankly no one is really servicing that market well today. So we’ll use a combination of a free trial service with a paid-for service and we think people will really like it.
JS: What lessons from your successful tenure at BroadSoft are you bringing to Vidtel?
SW: I think one of the first things I learned at BroadSoft, and before that I was with the first voice VOIP company called VocalTec, is that whenever you have new technology a lot of people have trouble envisioning how it will work or how it will be applied or coming up with the best use cases. I think an example is the iPad. Before you actually see something and experience it they’re going to be a lot of naysayers saying “Why do I need that? I’ve got a cell phone and I’ve got a laptop. What’s the need for this thing that’s new?” My experience at VocalTeh, BroadSoft and Vidtel is similar in that you have people who are viewing something new and a lot of people who can’t envision it, so part of what we’re trying to do is a couple things. One is get technology out and into people’s hands so they can experience it for themselves to change their minds. Secondly is try to take some thought leadership in the industry to explain to people if you’re a small to medium business, what could you do with videoconferencing and what would the solution look like and how could you deploy it. Not only providing a service but also providing some ideas and thoughts about what would be appropriate use cases, the right equipment, etc. And sell people on technology choices that go well beyond the scope of Vidtel. So we can break down a lot of the barriers that are not just in the service room but in all the questions that you brought up on etiquette, what device do I use, why do I need it and so on. That way we can make videoconferencing more main stream to the mid market.
JS: What do you make of the recent consolidation in the videoconferencing market?
SW: Well, I think it’s a great validation of the space. If you think about it, it’s been 20 years for the videoconferencing sector slowly growing every year into multi-billion dollar market. I think the fact that these bigger players like Logitech and Cisco have these big bets that does two things. One, they think that these companies see video not as niche markets but as huge main stream markets and that they need to use their sales channels to get video out to a boarder market. I think the second thing that it says is that there’s room for innovation so that these big companies consolidate and offer things that are end to end. I think they also provide some opportunity for people coming in and from different angles to add more value. I think the bottom line is anytime you have multi-billion dollar companies coming in and spending billions of dollars in acquisitions it mean that it’s a real market and that it’s going to get bigger. It’s great news for the industry and good validation that it’s doing what we all think it is going to do which is about to take off.
JS: Can interoperability through the cloud create the environment for true wide spread adoption of videoconferencing in the call center?
SW: I think the key thing in the call center is there is a chicken and the egg problem between someone that’s in the call center with capabilities and the end user themselves. People are focused a lot on providing technology to the call center but not necessarily providing the right experience to the end user. I think one thing the cloud can do is link the consumers in this market in such a way that regardless of what device or system that people are using, they can connect in a standards based way to people in call centers. I’m definitely a big proponent of using video as a customer service tool. I think we all know that when you’re in person or talking to someone with video, you have a much better feeling than when you talk to them on the phone being frustrated. I think one of the things that the cloud provider can do is instead of having people use proprietary systems for every call center, to have something that can be more standards based to link the two of them together.
JS: What impact on customer service do you feel B2C videoconferencing can bring to a company looking for a leg up on their competitors?
SW: Customer service these days can be extremely frustrating. On the end user side, they feel that they are being shuffled off to an IVR or potentially to some other country where the people may not be as skilled. Also, the ability to up sell is improved with video. I think there’s been a lot of market research that shows that when you’re having a real human interaction, not only are you happier on the customer service side in terms of resolving a problem but maybe you are more inclined to do work with a business or buy more things. I think there’s a whole new business where you have distributed customer service. So think about McDonald’s as a drive-thru store where people can come into a place and there may not be the appropriate people to answer a question or maybe people call in sick. You have the ability to supplement that with the some centralized help or call centers so that people can go to McDonald’s and there’s no reason why the call has to go in to that store maybe the call goes into Iowa or India and you actually see the person. You may be able to lessen the mistakes and misunderstandings by simply talking with those people. So I think there’s this whole new market that can be created as well as saving people money, but not forcing you to have a dedicated resource right there in front of somebody.
JS: That’s a good point maybe people would be nicer to their customer service representatives over video, too.
SW: Well it’s vice versa, when you don’t see someone or you’re on the internet doing text or blogging it’s much easier to find someone because it’s anonymous. Whereas I think when you can bring in the human element, whatever the context is, I think people tend to rise up and act a little better when you’re looking someone it the eye. I think videoconferencing can not only make people behave better but also improve the human interactions that we have personally and professionally. The reality is when you’re getting that information from talking to someone, there’s 90% of the information that’s coming that’s visual. When you don’t have that visual interaction, you lose that 90%. If you want to be more effective at communicating in your personal or business life, video is going to be an instrumental tool in order to do that. Just like when we went from the radio age when people said, ”I don’t understand why those young people need moving pictures; I can perfectly envision it being on the radio.” I think the same thing will happen with TV and videoconferencing where people will say, “Well of course you’re going to use video. Why would you do just voice? Why would you just listen to the radio unless you had to?” We’ll laugh about it and our kids will too. I’ll give you an example. We’ve been using videoconferencing since our kids were very young with all of our family around the world. One of my sons who is now six, a couple of years ago tried calling his grandmother with video and she wasn’t there. So I said to him, “Hey, how about we call her cell phone?” He looked at me with a dead pan look and he goes, “Nah, daddy if there’s no video there’s no point.”
JS: Do you see new technologies for video in the consumer space that could make it easier for everyone to communicate via video?
SW: Well, I think one of the things that has been missing, similar to the early days of voice; video is tethered to a fixed device like a laptop or a screen. One thing I’m really excited about is mobile video. I think you’ll see some similar trade-offs though. The video quality won’t quite be as good as the video you have on a fixed device with dedicated systems. But the reality is that if you can move around and be able to make video calls from your cell phone you will be more productive. For example, if you are going shopping and you want to show your wife, “Hey, should I buy this suit?” and she says, “No of course not, idiot, it looks stupid.” I think the ability to take your videoconferencing with you is going to be a huge boon. Probably just like the cell phone, the computers and the smart phones, it will move into the main stream. I think that having mobile video, not from a quality point of view, but from a usage point of view will do the same thing.
JS: What are your suggestions for people and companies in the videoconferencing space to be successful in the future?
SW: Part of it I think there’s still ways too much complexity in rolling out video. The current solutions today for companies assume that you’ve got a large department of people who can figure out all the complexities in rolling out video. I think that works okay for a large enterprise, but if you want to get the system to mainstream it won’t work. I think that there is still an attitude in the videoconferencing market that video is a niche market with very expensive gold plated solutions and big fat margins. I like to see more of a consumer electronics approach where people try to drive this to mass market with lower prices and higher quality. There’s no reason if you look at a video phone for example or a device, it basically is a computer. So there’s no reason why video appliances can’t be as ubiquitous as an iPod. I think that some people do video on their computers, but I think if you really want to make the quality better and the cost reasonable you can have a very low cost appliance that people will buy with a quality trade off. I think the third thing is the interoperability. If I can only call one other person in my company, it’s not very useful. To the extent that I go from making calls within my company to calling anyone in any business, that is going to be the lighter fluid that makes this whole thing take off. So if you can solve the complexity cost and the interop questions, there is no doubt in my mind that ten years from now everybody will have video and everyone will use it. Maybe it’s sooner than that. I think and I hope it will be. I think it’s just a matter of time before the problems get solved and Vidtel is trying to do their part to solve them as well.