Video Conferencing Bucks Trend

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 technologies working 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.