Video conferencing technology has been around for years, but most of us still don't spend our days sitting in large rooms staring at virtual counterparts of our distant coworkers—we prefer confusing conference calls or plain old Skype instead. Why is that? If video conferencing is the meeting of the future, a movement toward a world that is truly flat, why, in 2010, isn't everyone on it?
Well, mostly because it's so damn complicated. Because it hogs bandwidth. Because the thingamajig in my office doesn't work with the thingamajig in your office. Because it's a big hassle. But today's partnership announcement from telecom leader Polycom and networking hardware company Juniper Networks hopes to make things run a lot smoother.
"We're of the same religion, with the same view of open collaboration," says Scott Stevens, vice president of technology at Juniper. "The way the industry is now, the left hand and the right hand don't talk. But because we're now able to communicate and collaborate between the network and the application, we're combing two worlds." Two worlds that previously didn't want anything to do with one another.
As it stands now, the network doesn't realize a teleconference is going on, so it continues to distribute bandwidth as if you were checking your email or surfing the Web. Obviously this doesn't work for video conferencing, often ending with frozen video screens and a ring on the old fashioned telephone. Serious HD teleconferencers have a dedicated network only for conferencing, but it's expensive and wasteful when a conference isn't actually occurring. The partnership between Polycom and Juniper allows the Polycom teleconferencing application to tell the Juniper network what it's doing and to move bandwidth accordingly.
To an outsider, the problem seems overly complicated and the solution seems overly simplified. It's like if a Verizon phone couldn't call an AT&T phone—it just doesn't make sense. But to those inside the industry, open collaboration between two companies has been a long and difficult challenge.
"We started this work about five years ago, exploring and doing exactly what we're doing now, and we've been working on the R&D for the last year," says Andrew Miller, VP of global field operations at Polycom (and former CEO of Tandberg). "But now we have true integration. This is a milestone in our business."
But what does it mean for Joe Blow Businessman? "All you're going to know is it's cheaper, it's easier to use, and it works everywhere," says Stevens. In theory, cheaper and easier means higher adoption rates, and the more people who are on the system, the cheaper it becomes for each user.
And what of the competition in Cisco and its acquisition of Tandberg? "A line in the sand has been drawn between Cisco and Polycom," Miller says. Adds Stevens: "They're smart, and they'll adapt, working to catch up to us. But that's what they'll be doing: catching up. This is going to change the game, and it's something they can't do overnight."
Will it change the telepresence game? We'll see as the companies' joint solutions begin to roll out toward mid-year 2010. But if nothing else, it's a step toward all thingamajigs being able to communicate with each other. Perhaps in a few years we'll all be meeting virtually after all.