Tools Of The Trade: Essential equipment for business: this week, a video conferencing service that works from your PC

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Video conferencing is a technology that has been around the corner for at least 10 years, but has never quite arrived. Expensive and complex equipment, high running costs and poor picture quality have served to deter would-be business users. But the idea of using video links instead of - or to complement - face-to-face meetings still has a strong appeal. Travel costs, not to mention delays, are persuasive arguments for doing business from the comfort of your PC.

Video conferencing is a technology that has been around the corner for at least 10 years, but has never quite arrived. Expensive and complex equipment, high running costs and poor picture quality have served to deter would-be business users. But the idea of using video links instead of - or to complement - face-to-face meetings still has a strong appeal. Travel costs, not to mention delays, are persuasive arguments for doing business from the comfort of your PC.

It is possible to set up a basic two-way conference over the internet with a pair of cheap webcams and some free software. But the quality might not be up to much, and there is no guarantee the links are secure. One company offering a service that sits between expensive, dedicated video conferencing links and the DIY approach is WebEx. This Californian service provider runs its own network, so it can guarantee performance and security. But you still use the net to hook up locally, so there is no need for dedicated wires. Better still, WebEx requires no special hardware. Even a webcam is optional.

The WebEx service works through a web browser plug-in, compatible with Windows, Macintosh and Linux. Setting up a conference is a matter of logging on to the WebEx site, setting the time and inviting the participants to attend. Logging into a WebEx conference shows three main screens: one for video, one for text chat and one for data. Video is fun, and with frame rates of up to 15fps, the quality is reasonable. But it is the data screen - something even some high-end video-conference systems still struggle with - that is most useful.

The host of a WebEx conference can display PowerPoint documents, Word files, or anything else a computer can print, on the data screen. Hosts can run multimedia content from their computers; they can also let a participant take over the application, for example for training. For voice, still the most important part of most conference calls, WebEx offers a dial-in option over a regular phone, and voice over the internet. Using a conventional phone guarantees quality and makes it easy to include participants who might not be near a PC. The host can even dial in participants, saving on mobile bills.

It is this flexibility that makes WebEx so interesting. It can bring together people on fixed line, mobile, PC only and high and low bandwidth connections. And WebEx is more reliable, and easier to manage and expand than a simple PC-based instant messaging tool.

This does, of course, come at a cost. An ad-hoc, pay-per-use meeting costs 28p per minute per user, plus additional voice conferencing charges (priced at 10 cents [5.5p] a minute for dial in, and 25 cents where the host dials back). On average this works out at around £40 per hour per participant, regardless of where they are in the world.

Subscriptions start at $375 a month for up to five users and 200 minutes of audio. WebEx says it can also produce tailored price plans to meet different users' needs. While it charges more than some voice-only conferencing services, it is certainly cheaper - and quicker - than travelling.

Video conferencing may have done little to dent the demand for air travel in the business world. But services such as WebEx might yet give British Airways, easyJet et al pause for thought, especially if prices fall.

THE VERDICT

WebEx video conferencing

Rating: 4 out of 5

Cost: From 28p per minute

Available from: www.webex.com

Comments