As I rarely fail to point out, I’ve been in the videoconferencing industry a long time. Over the years, I’ve talked endlessly about the importance of quality.
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 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, let me define quality. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define it as the quality of the individual call. (i.e. the number of pixels, the color fidelity, the frame rate, 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 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. The vast majority of business technology users couldn’t care less how the technology works. 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.
The vast majority of business people have never used videoconferencing. They’ve managed their entire careers with crappy 3.1Khz audio on a 4lb box with a handset on their desks. Pretty much ANYTHING is an upgrade. However, they’re 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 videoconferencing call in front of their colleagues, clients, and suppliers is practically zero.
For years, room-based videoconferencing suppliers have stated that the user interface on the room-based technologies is better than desktop devices. Their main reasoning being 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, users’ confidence increases and they’re much more likely to experiment and use it. Even more importantly, they can try it in the privacy of their own offices or homes. This allows users to 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, but most get a Toyota Corolla.
Toyota’s are often thought of as the most reliable, sensible, and boring cars ever made. They’re purchased by sensible people who don’t want a puddle of oil on the driveway or a phone call from a stranded teenager at 2am. IT departments have a similar purchasing pattern. They’re not interested in the highest speed or the coolest looks. Their goal is less complaints from users and to NEVER get a call about it. Ecstatic users is beyond the wildest dreams of IT departments.
IT departments go to work to not get fired.
Want evidence? Think about the last time you called to thank your IT department when everything went right. Done it? Have you heard of anyone who has? Ever? Thought not.
Somebody to Love
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 videoconferencing-capable device is still real. Luckily, this is going away thanks to Logitech, Skype, Google, Apple, and a bunch of others seeding the market with tools at a scalable price point.
Salespeople Love Cool Features
Salespeople love showing off new features. That’s why it’s a lot more interesting to sell an F-150 Raptor, than it is to sell a Toyota Corolla. Selling reliability is dull. Every salesperson wants to leave the client agog with the quality and amazed by how cool their technology is. I fully understand that. However, many times the technology has a brief period of use and after a few embarrassing moments, it gets quietly forgotten. Videoconferencing is about the only technology I know of where this doesn’t happen. 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.
That being said, there are two areas in our industry that may contradict this trend – telepresence and HD videoconferencing.
Telepresence has ultimately been a failure, simply because the cost of ownership was so high that it couldn’t scale. Having no one to call can put a very serious damper on the utilization of any technology. Also, many of these systems weren’t actually high definition. The HP Halo was 480p. The Teliris was 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.
Very few users experience true HD videoconferencing. Most room-based endpoints don’t have the capability to produce 1080p images. IT departments are unwilling to give users the bandwidth. 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 videoconferencing (720p at 30fps) was first shown in 2005. Over 10 years later, the vast majority of users still don’t experience that level of quality and it seems no one cares.
Today, the videoconferencing industry is changing. Users are simply looking for something better than web conferencing and a telephone. The solution needs to work every time and not embarrass them to death. As the market moves from a push sale to a pull one, the bells and whistles become less important. The most important selling points today are ease of use, ubiquity, and reliability.
It’ll 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. Vendors trying to sell F-150 Raptor’s to folks who simply want their kids to get to school and back alive, less so.