Good Enough?

The recent announcement of the Logitech CC3300e conference camera has caused me to reflect on what value video communications represents to organisations.

Having recently participated in a number of discussions about the future of video communications, I can’t help but be reminded of failed attempts by customers to use low cost peripherals to drive video meetings in meeting rooms.  There’s a swathe of reasons why these projects were doomed to fail, with the most common issues being:

  • Cameras with a field of view set for desktop use, not for meeting rooms.
  • Cameras with low quality sensors providing low resolutions or just bad video.
  • Cameras with fixed optics that can’t deal with people sat further away.
  • Microphones tethered by USB limiting optimal placement.
  • Sub-standard echo cancellation.

With the release of the CC3300, I think Logitech has a bit of a game changer. Every objection listed above, the CC3300 has as an answer that is ‘good enough’.  What’s more, it’s cheap (approximately £800).

cc3300e-gg[1]

If video is truly going to become pervasive, as the industry has promised for so many years, it’s going to be off the back of devices such as these.  Metcalfe’s law was never so applicable to any technology as it is for video communications.  Where organisations were being asked to spend around £10,000 minimum on meeting room solutions that use purpose built appliances, they can now enable meeting rooms with video for less than a tenth of the price.

Put another way, organisations can now enable more than ten times the number of meeting rooms for video collaboration for the same price.

The value that organisations will yield from this scale of deployment far outweighs the diminished user experience.

I see many threads on discussion communities asking the question ‘Is hardware dead?’.  At this new price point, it’s difficult to see how the current crop of dedicated hardware appliances have a place in this new pervasive world.  I still think they do however, but the market for these types of system is shrinking.

Here’s the thing.  Logitech have made good quality PC peripherals for as long as I can remember.  This CC3300 is no exception, and represents a big step up in functionality for Logitech.  Yet it’s still only ‘good enough’.

Whilst this device addresses many of the requirements of video meetings held in rooms, it’s still really only suitable for rooms of up to around 4 participants.  Any more than that and the experience begins to degrade.  The first thing that happens is the microphone becomes less effective.  Bad audio remains the number one issue that degrades video meetings today.

The camera itself still requires a PC to drive the experience.  This could either be a dedicated PC in the room, or a device that a participant brings along.  The most economical (and reliable) method is the ‘bring your own’ model.  This ensures that the device is in good working order before the meeting starts, and the host simply plugs the camera into their device.  Simple.  Meeting Room fixed PC’s are notoriously unreliable.

Then we look at the activities that happen in room based video meetings.  Content gets created and shared.  Whilst this Logitech solution allows for content sharing from its host PC or Laptop, it is to the exclusion of all other participants in the room.  But hey, this is ‘good enough’.  These issues are nothing compared to the fact that we’ve just increased our footprint tenfold.

I actually agree with this argument.  The price of ubiquity here is providing the users with a good enough experience in the meeting room.

I still believe however, that we can do better.  Good enough will only be good enough for so long, users will expect more.  We’ve seen this before, only this time the number of users has increased 10 fold or more. Videoconferencing room systems have evolved in the way they have because users demanded a better experience.  Better data sharing and collaboration capabilities.  Better audio.  Better, more clear pictures to give a natural experience.  Simple, intuitive user interfaces, and scheduling.

I watch with interest as to how Cisco, Polycom et al react to this.  In my ideal world we will see something that provides a consistent user experience to the systems we’re used to seeing today, but at a price point that allows for truly pervasive video in the meeting room.

Will these vendors rise to the challenge, and intriguingly, will it be with dedicated appliances?  I still think the key to providing a remarkable user experience lies as much in the hardware design as it does the user interface and peripherals.  Apple has shown is it is possible to build your own specific hardware at a price point acceptable to the market, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.

My parting shot is a quote from Rowan Trollope, in his analyst keynote at the 2013 Collaboration Summit.  “Cisco is at war with good enough”.  Let’s see.

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