Consumerization may be the new thing in IT, but not in this case.
There seems to be no such thing as a middle ground
for video conferencing. Essentially, the choices for most businesses boil down
to being either cheap or pretty.
The full-blown telepresence scenario, on one hand,
provides a polished and professional experience, but requires a tremendous
investment in facilities and hardware. On the other hand, the do-it-yourself
approach based on Apple's FaceTime or a Skype client flies in the face of
traditional, top-down approaches to IT; however, many users see these DIY
technologiesworking well for them outside
the office and want the same convenience at work. In either case, full interoperability
remains a pipe dream for anything beyond the most rudimentary instances.
It's clear that increasingly powerful consumer
devices are pushing IT into a greater flexibility when it comes to what
technologies to support. For better or worse, the fit of a device or technology
into the master plan for IT becomes less relevant with every year that goes by.
For example, corporate IT departments are under increasing pressure to support
devices such as the iPad and iPhone; meanwhile, vendors of devices that were developed
with the needs of business in mind, such as Research in Motion's BlackBerry line,
are finding themselves playing catch-up instead of running up the score.
The question is not whether Apple and Skype are
going to change the way companies look at video conferencing; they are already
doing that. Instead, the question is which technology is likely to have the
greater impact in the corporate world.
At first glance, it would seem that Skype is way out
in front of Apple. After all, its business-focused Skype Connect voice over IP
service has been generally available since August 2010, and allows PBX and unified
communications systems to connect to Skype's network. Early this year, Skype
added group video calling to its business package, which allows up to 10
clients to participate in a video conference. The Skype for Business client,
which is supported only on Windows systems, supports both the voice and video
services. At least in theory, Skype is far ahead of Apple's FaceTime in the business
sector since, for now, FaceTime is aimed squarely at the consumer market.
But Skype can be a very tough sell in some
organizations, in some cases because of its international flavor. Much of its
development effort is based in Estonia, while the company's headquarters are in
Luxembourg. For outfits that are extremely security-conscious-for whatever
reason-or focused on the national origin of their software, that alone may be
enough to make Skype a non-starter.
Other objections to Skype as a business tool come
from a more practical set of concerns. From an engineering perspective,
organizations with a very restrictive firewall policy may run into trouble with
Skype, as it works best with a wide range of available User Datagram Protocol ports
for both outbound and inbound traffic. TCP traffic can be restricted to ports 80
and 443, which handle HTTP and HTTPS, respectively. On top of the network-access
question, Skype's protocols are proprietary; the company does not appear to
have submitted them to any standards bodies or to be interested in doing so.
Going It Alone, Sort Of
Apple's FaceTime is relatively new on the scene,
having debuted last year with the iPhone 4. Having been introduced in October
2010 for Mac OS X systems, FaceTime appears destined to replace the company's
iChat service in many aspects. Although Apple CEO Steve Jobs promised at the
launch of the iPhone 4 that the company would seek to make FaceTime an "open"
standard, no standards bodies have ratified it. It's not even clear if Apple
has submitted FaceTime to any outside groups for consideration.
What is clear is that FaceTime is based on a number
of open standards, including the H.264 video codec and the AAC audio codec. Session
Initiation Protocol is used for signaling, and other Internet Engineering Task Force
standards and technologies are used for firewall and Network Address
Translation traversal and for delivering multimedia streams in real time with and
without encryption. It's therefore possible to argue that FaceTime is far closer
to openness than Skype, but since FaceTime is restricted to Apple's own
hardware for the moment, in practical terms, it's a much less open ecosystem than
Skype, which in its consumer version is truly multiplatform, as it's available
for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.
With the number of executives and senior managers
packing iPads and iPhones increasing every day, FaceTime is undoubtedly going
to worm its way into the enterprise, even if a business-focused set of features
is beyond the horizon. Although it presumably would be in Apple's interest to
open up FaceTime to services beyond its control (or that of its partners
AT&T and Verizon), such a move could be years away.
Although one of the hot IT concepts of 2011 is consumerization-the application of consumer technologies to business
purposes-it's clear that video conferencing technology is still an archipelago
where consumer technologies are just a flyspeck on the map. Interoperability
continues to elude the big-ticket telepresence and consumer-focused vendors
alike, and that will hobble the entire market for video conferencing for as
long as one can see.
P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at email@example.com.