By Stephen M. Epstein
We’ve come a long way in the two decades since the publication of “Being Digital" by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte. Back in 1995, most Americans did not have cellphones, or certainly not one cellphone for every family member; and people working in technology talked about “paradigm shifts" and “500 channels" and the “information superhighway."
Today we talk about “disruptive technology" and we don’t even talk about “500 channels," we talk about apps. (If we think of 500 channels, we might be recalling Bruce Springsteen’s 1992 song, which still holds true: “57 Channels and Nothing On.")
But we haven’t come as far and as fast as Negreponte might have thought when he wrote, “The book you are holding is probably obsolete" and that we’re moving from atoms to bits. We are living in a bit world — truly the information age when content like books are available electronically. You can watch TV programs not in your living room on a “TV set" but sitting on your commuter train to work and watching on your smartphone. You can read a newspaper without having to wait for the delivery person to throw the paper into the bushes near your door. And you read it now without getting your fingers dirty from newsprint.
In fact, if invented today, many things we take for granted would be very different. Under the old (and still current model) of newspapers, what you read Monday morning is actually news that occurred Sunday. To get you the printed version, the newspaper has to be printed on huge presses, cut and collated, distributed on trucks and then sorted out and delivered to each subscriber’s front door. That’s a tremendous amount of resources and wasted time for something that can be emailed Sunday night.
But the reason we have not made as much progress is that most of us still think with a hardware — a legacy — framework. Take keys, for example. You really don’t need them. New cars come with keys that you never need to insert into the ignition to start the car. Just keep them in your pocket and the car starts with the push of a button. At some point in the near future, there should be an app for that because, after all, who leaves their home without their phone? The same technology should be applied to the door to your home or office.
Or take videoconferencing. Less than a decade ago, the only way to conduct a videoconference call was to buy and install a complicated room system that cost around $500,000. And you could only talk to another room that had the exact same room system, meaning your company had to invest $1 million so that employees in just two offices to could see each other.
Today, you might want to videoconference on your smartphone or tablet. But the infrastructure most enterprises have does not allow that. The reason: Most videoconferencing vendors remain locked in the old ways, trapped in a hardware world of atoms when the rest of us want bits.
Software-based videoconferencing solves a lot of the problems generated by hardware. Software-based videoconferencing enables scalability so that it is easy to allow more employees to use videoconferencing without having to buy and deploy additional hardware-based MCUs. Software MCUs are easier to upgrade when new technology is far superior. Software-based videoconferencing allows customers to take advantage of more cost-effective ways, like the cloud, which provides additional flexibility and lower costs.
Already, hardware-based videoconferencing has been losing momentum. Polycom’s Q4 profits and revenues declined by 96 percent while Logitech has written down a significant amount from its purchase of LifeSize, and is opening hinting that it will unload LifeSize.
And as software-based videoconferencing picks up, the channel is going to face a new challenge along with new opportunities to provide value to their customers.
Since videoconferencing software will be available by download, not by SKU, channel partners will have to morph into integrators because the business requirements won’t be in shipping packaged boxes, but in making sure the software works. Channel partners will need to train and recruit employees who can help clients deploy the software across the company, whether at one location or many locations worldwide. The transition to software-based videoconferencing will also require channel partners to adopt a new business model to accommodate the time and skills required to make the software work. (By the way, the shift to all-software videoconferencing will also push vendors to make sure their videoconferencing software interoperates well with other unified communications platforms and solutions — something that, frankly, is a bit of an issue right now. Demand for interoperability will make it easier to deploy and integrate videoconferencing software.)
For the channel, videoconferencing software offers the great opportunity to find new ways to add value to customers, and to form a new, tighter relationship with them. In a world in which we’ve broken many of the analog-era shackles that bind us, we can expect even more technological progress because upgrades will be faster and less expensive.
Stephen M. Epstein is the chief marketing officer of Avistar Communications, an award-winning pioneer of unified visual communications solutions, and the first to develop all-software videoconferencing. Avistar’s business-class personal videoconferencing technology is used across a broad range of industries and is used to power solutions from Citrix, IBM, LifeSize, Logitech and many other leading unified communications vendors.