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Videoconferencing used to be an expensive boardroom novelty. Now broadband has opened up the service to individual desktop users. Danny Bradbury reports

In the past, Sean Arnold's job as an executive headhunter meant that he often had to fly halfway round the world to interview a candidate. Now he does it from his office chair, with the help of his high-end personal videoconferencing system.

The former way of working was expensive, and the consultants at his company Korn/ Ferry didn't have time to meet their corporate clients as regularly. Until now, however, only the larger videoconferencing systems have been in general use. The company experimented with these, but found them expensive and cumbersome; only certain (senior) people in the company could have access to them, and they had to be booked as a resource.

Desktop systems are much cheaper and more flexible, but their quality has been far from perfect and the software unintuitive. In practice, this has meant that desktop videoconferencing has never had much more than novelty value.

Now, with the increase in broadband connection, vendors are taking desktop videoconferencing more seriously. A new class of camera and software combination has appeared, plugging the gap between unwieldy boardroom systems and blurry, difficult-to-use low-end desktop offerings. The cameras include features such as high-power hardware video compression, along with software designed to take advantage of them.

And the market is responding, says Andrew W Davis, US managing partner of the specialist videoconferencing market analyst Wainhouse Research. Last year, vendors sold only 34,000 desktop cameras worldwide, compared with 82,000 boardroom systems. This year, the gap will narrow to 56,000 versus 85,000. By 2005, sales will be neck and neck.

Apple is one company driving the adoption of quality desktop cameras. It offers iSight and iChat AV, a hardware/software combination that claims to offer better video than most of its competitors, with built-in noise-cancelling microphones and a wide-aperture lens for capturing more light.

"We already have a big videoconferencing centre at Apple, but iChat AV works better. You don't need to structure the meeting in the way you do with the other systems," says Jon Rubenstein, senior vice president of hardware engineering at Apple. Another advantage is that iChat AV integrates with AOL Instant Messenger so that you know when other people in your buddy list are available for video chat, making impromptu desktop meetings even more likely. However, both ends have to be using the software.

The more traditional vendors are noticing the potential of desktop devices, too. Polycom, which cut its teeth selling videoconferencing systems to the boardroom market, now has two desktop offerings. The ViaVideo II features a £400 camera with built-in hardware compression, with support for multiple computer monitors to display data and video together. Like iChat AV, it comes with dedicated software that you should use at both ends to get the best out of the system. Polycom doesn't think that desktop sales will affect roll-around business. The latter is for scheduled meetings while personal conferencing is for ad hoc meetings, with an emphasis on sharing video and other data in a single session.

This data-sharing concept appeals to John Hampshire, the IT manager at Hampshire County Council. He is currently piloting a desktop-based videoconferencing system among six schools which will launch in the county next month. He is using Logitech cameras in conjunction with the Click to Meet web-based service from First Virtual Corporation, which mixes videoconferencing with other features such as application sharing and whiteboards. The system is mostly used for reducing travelling time for education officers, but Hampshire has found it useful for teachers, too. They're using the system for snakes and ladders games between schools, and he also sees possibilities for deaf children to use sign language over the videoconferencing link.

However, not everyone is convinced that desktop videoconferencing is the way forward. Noël Edmonds - best known for his TV and radio shows - founded his third videoconferencing business in June. Called face2face, it joins the Video Meeting Company, which he founded five years ago to sell and install videoconferencing kit, and the UBC Media Group which he set up to broadcast multimedia content. Edmonds created the companies because he couldn't find anyone to install quality videoconferencing for him from his Devon home.

Face2face uses fixed-position videoconferencing units at 70 offices across the country. For £50 an hour, customers can walk in and use them "like a red telephone box", although you do have to book in advance, says Edmonds. "We're talking about technology that should give you broadcast quality pictures. None of this webcam rubbish - the quality shouldn't reduce your IQ by 50 per cent," he says.

The videoconferencing systems are designed mainly to conference with other face2face offices, but you can use a face2face booth to speak to people on webcams and 3G phones too. The company has to arrange such sessions in advance using a third-party gateway system, says face2face's operations director Clive Jones.

Edmonds' venture will be challenged because of the obligation to book conferences in advance and to travel to the site for broadcast-quality calls, but it will stand a better chance of working as more face2face sites are added. He hopes to have 2,000 across the country by 2006, and already has 10 sites in large hotels. The service will probably appeal to people who would normally have travelled to a meeting, rather than people who would otherwise have used the phone but want a more visual experience. It is off to a good start, though: it has won backing from organisations including Friends of the Earth and the travel-cutting advocacy group Transport 2000.

Whether you choose the broadcast-quality option of a roll-around or hourly service, or you prefer the lower quality but higher convenience of a desktop system, the real challenge lies in getting people to adapt to a new way of meeting. Just as many people were originally reluctant to leave messages on answerphones when they first appeared, videoconferencing systems will doubtless find many camera-shy users. In spite of this, it looks like more people are beginning to get the picture.

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