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Walkthrough Wednesdays

Seeing is Believing


The last few years have seen a meteoric rise in the usage of video on the Internet. Internet video traffic in North America and Europe in October 2008 exceeded the amount of traffic that crossed the entire global Internet in October 2001. According to comScore, Internet video minutes consumed in North America, France, Germany, and the UK surpassed 100 billion minutes per month  ( Interestingly, the vast majority of this is streaming video, not real-time video.

I believe this is going to change. The rise of streaming video has given users an appetite for video on the Internet. Webcams are seeing increased sales, and more and more users have them on their desktops for a variety of reasons. Internet capacity and access bandwidths for both consumers and businesses are growing to accomodate the demands of Internet video. If you combine that with the growing adoption of IP-based communications within enterprises, the result is a recipe for the ascendance of real-time video as a business collaboration tool.

Real-time video has obvious applications within an enterprise, especially a large multi-site company with offices in disparate locations. Intra-company video can reduce the need for travel between sites, directly improving the bottom line. Cisco has widely deployed telepresence units across the world in order to achieve exactly this goal. Video can also improve productivity for day-to-day meetings. However, there is even greater value for video in a business-to-business context. Within the confines of an enterprise, interactions between employees are easier and more frequent. Tools like instant messaging, presence, wikis, and corporate directories allow employees to easily find each other, share information, and communicate with very low barriers to entry. Frequent communication is expected. In addition, there is a certain level of trust that exists. Employees know they are all working towards a common goal - meeting the objectives of the company. Employees know they can share proprietary information - that there is no need to be 'on guard'.

When communicating with colleagues in other businesses, none of these things are true. There are fewer tools for collaboration. Instant messaging and presence between businesses is very rare. Information sharing is fundamentally limited of course, and the tools for sharing what can be shared are limited in their availability and use. Frequent communication is rarer (though of course this depends on the nature of the relationship). There is fundamentally a different level of trust. Employees always need to be aware of what they can and cannot say, and be "on-guard" at some level. As a consequence of all of this, inter-company communications and collaborations becomes a "valuable commodity". It is rarer and it is more difficult to obtain. This produces an interesting amplication effect on features like video - their value, in terms of productivity, is substantially amplified in business-to-business settings compared to their intra-company use.

This is best illustrated by some use cases where a video call can have a direct and easy to understand impact on the bottom line. Broadly, these use cases fall into two buckets. The first is the usage of video to interact with things and not just people, and the second is the usage of video to convey nuances of human interaction.

Interacting with Things

1. Jack is manager at GreenCars Inc., a manufacturer of hybrid and electric cars. Jack has responsibility for producing the engines that will go into the company's newest line of vehicles. Like most car manufacturers, GreenCars uses external suppliers to produce parts that they assemble together. Today, Jack has a call with Marissa, who is the lead designer for PartsCo, which makes a fan that Jack will be putting into his engine. Jack is on a video call with Marissa. During this call, Marissa holds up a prototype of the newest fan. She shows Jack what the fan looks like from all angles, shows exactly where the connections are, how it spins, and so on. During this process, Jack notices a subtle problem with the way the fan blades are laid out, and a change is needed. Fortunately, PartsCo had not yet gone into production, and Marissa was able to make an adjustment to the prototype and still meet their deadlines.

2. Sanjay is an IT manager for AnyCo. AnyCo has a small data center that uses servers from IBM. One of the power supplies in the mail server has failed, and corporate mail is down. Unfortunately, Sanjay cannot figure out how to remove the power supply and replace it with a spare he has. Sanjay calls up IBM technical support, and has a video call with an agent there. Sanjay points the camera and the internals of his server, showing the agent what he's been trying to do. The agent notices that Sanjay missed a hidden screw underneath the motherboard. She is table to talk him through exactly where the screw is, telling him to move his hand left, right, up and down as necessary to find the hard-to-see screw. Sanjay finds it, and is able to get the power supply out and replaced.

3. Zak is a director of engineering for BigSoftware, which is looking to outsource development of a mobile application to a supplier with familiarity with mobile phones. LittleStartup has developed a prototype of the application. Zak is concerned about usability, concerned about how it looks on the small screen of the phone, and concerned about responsiveness of the application. He sets up a video call with Jean-Paul, the lead developer of LittleStartup's application. During the video call, Jean-Paul holds up the phone to his high quality video camera, and is able to show Zak how the user presses buttons, navigates menus, and how the screen looks. Zak sees that there is a long lag between button presses and screen updates, and decides to use a different vendor.

The common theme across these use cases is how real time video can allow users to interact around an object, to discuss it, to manipulate it, and to truly see it and understand it. A photo, a schematic, or even a recorded video of the object cannot give the same sense of understanding as an interactive video discussion around the object.

Interacting with People

1. John is the CEO of InternetMonster, a large web company that is eyeing its next acquisition. John is having a discussion with Lori, the CEO of NextBigInternetThing, to discuss the deal. John is somewhat skeptical on the projected revenues over the next three quarters, and wants to understand it better. During the conversation, Lori smiles and talks naturally but is constantly fidgeting in her chair and rubbing her hands together tightly - something he has not seen her do before. John becomes more suspicious and pushes harder on the revenue projections. Finally Lori admits that some of the numbers are overly optimistic. John decides to back out of the deal. Five months later NextBigInternetThing goes under.

2. Chris is a sales manager for SellMoreStuff Inc. One of his key accounts, BuyLots, has reduced their orders for the next quarter, instead spending more money with Chris's competitor. Chris feels that trust is an issue, and that BuyLots is concerned about the quality of the product. Chris sets up a video call with executives at BuyLots, and brings in the product manager for the product in question. Through the discussion, the decision makers of BuyLots become more comfortable with what the product manager is saying, and decide that their fears were unfounded. Chris turns things around and gets BuyLots to increase their orders for the next quarter.

In both of these cases, richer inter-personal communications were necessary in order to meet business objectives. Indeed, speech is really only one part of the overall process of communications. Body language, expressions, gestures and tone of voice are all just as much part of communications as voice is. This is why people find it easier to build relationships in-person; voice-only communications is only half-communicating. Video allows people to close the gap.

With the continuing rise of streaming Internet video, it certainly seems as if the stage is being set for real-time video to finally take its place at the forefront of enterprise communications. Business-to-business video is particularly valuable, and can have a real impact on the bottom line.

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