There's nothing like face-to-face meetings for really connecting with clients or team members, but with air travel becoming ever more expensive (and ever less pleasant), frequent in-person meetings are becoming less viable for many businesses. That means your best option is usually a videoconference.
If you can afford them, today's most immersive videoconferencing experiences are provided by top-end telepresence suites, which often take up an entire room, include highly specialized equipment and cost north of $100,000 per system, not to mention ongoing monthly fees of several thousand dollars. Some large enterprises don't blink at these costs because of the savings in airfare and the perks they provide, such as crystal-clear audio, smooth high-def video and comfortable seating.
But these high-end systems are far too pricey for many companies. The good news is that today there are countless options for holding a virtual meeting. It's possible to conduct a professional business meeting without spending big bucks, using just a computer with a microphone and a webcam, or you can step up to a midrange system that includes its own hardware but doesn't require a dedicated room.
Even free video-chat services, which in the past often provided jerky video or suffered from latency problems (such as not-quite-synchronized audio and video, or delays in both the video and audio from when the person actually spoke), have improved vastly in the past few years. Of course, free systems aren't held to any contractual uptime standards, as the recent Skype outage shows. On the other hand, pricier services are not immune to downtime.
To find out which videoconferencing option works best in specific situations, we tested a range of services at all levels: a simple Yahoo Messenger chat, multiperson Web chats from the likes of Skype and ooVoo, LifeSize's dedicated videoconferencing system, and full-blown telepresence offerings from Polycom and Cisco. I'll let you know what to expect from each type of service and which might be a good fit for your business.
IM video chat
On the low end of the scale is video chat provided by common instant messaging clients. The main advantage of IM video chat is that anyone can use it for free from just about anywhere. A colleague, vendor or customer can quickly download the tool, and you can be chatting in minutes, making instant messaging a quick-and-dirty (not to mention free) way to hold a videoconference.
I chose Yahoo Messenger to represent this category of video chat, but it's not discernibly different from or better than other IM clients that support live video chat. Other products in this space include Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Paltalk.
Yahoo's IM client supports the old adage "you get what you pay for." The service costs nothing and, no surprise, it's not exactly positioned to compete with full-blown videoconferencing systems like LifeSize.
To test it, I used Yahoo Messenger in four different places: on an airplane, at home, in the office and at a public library. Interestingly, the service adjusted on the fly to the quality of the connection. In an office with an 8Mbit/sec. cable modem connection and at home on a 2Mbit/sec. line, the video was smooth and crisp.
At a library on a 1Mbit/sec. DSL connection shared with other patrons, the video chat still worked smoothly without any interruptions or latency problems, but the image quality dropped dramatically -- the picture looked jagged and fuzzy. And on an airplane, Yahoo Messenger's video stream worked smoothly but with even more jaggies, presumably because the United Airlines service is intended mostly for lighter tasks like e-mail and Web browsing.
I find the less-than-stellar image with steady streaming a reasonable trade-off; better to have the image quality dip but maintain a smooth stream than to have crisp but interrupted video, because at least participants can keep track of what the other person is saying.
Yahoo Messenger is strictly for one-on-one chats, but it does let you send Web links, documents or photos during a chat. The video service works with those overseas -- a bonus when you consider that some midtier videoconferencing systems are limited to U.S.-only videoconferences.
Benoît Felten, an analyst at Yankee Group who covers videoconferencing, says IM video is most appropriate for ad hoc meetings where you need the visual cues and collaboration that a telephone call or regular IM chat can't provide. However, he says many large companies view one-on-one IM video chat as superfluous.
"Many businesses right now believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that person-to-person video is a gadget," he says.