Review: 3 videoconferencing services pick up where your travel budget leaves off

Business trips no longer on the agenda? These three services can help you stay on a face-to-face basis with your colleagues.

The first round of layoffs has taken hold, your annual bonus seems like a cruel joke, and travel is off-limits. So how are you going to give your presentation next week in Omaha to show off your company's upcoming products to your biggest customer?

I have one word for you: videoconferencing. By combining video and audio over the Internet, businesspeople can present ideas and work together digitally. In other words, it's time to collaborate and interact with people across the planet without leaving the office.

"As travel gets squeezed out of budgets, videoconferences are increasingly becoming the way business is being done," explains Roopam Jain, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. "It can provide face time without getting in the way of working."

In fact, videoconferencing is already having an effect on business. Rip Curl, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based maker of surfing equipment, conducts video calls so that its designers, marketers and manufacturers can collaborate on new products. conducts video meetings to make sure that seasonal employees can consistently create its most elaborate holiday decorations. Executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International conducts video interviews to screen potential candidates before presenting them to clients.

Getting better

In the past, videoconferencing wasn't much of an alternative. Desktop videoconferencing systems rightfully got a black eye for choppy video, out-of-sync audio and a lack of reliability. The only way to conduct a high-quality videoconference was to use a dedicated video room that required an investment upwards of $100,000, or rental fees between $500 and $1,000 an hour.

Today's videoconferencing services have improved to the point where they can give the dedicated rooms a run for their money. These services provide the ability to talk face-to-face with someone across town or across the globe, share documents and make annotations, at a fraction the cost of a dedicated video room.

It helps that most current desktop and notebook computers have sufficient power for decent videoconferencing. Obviously, the machine needs to have video camera, audio and reasonably up-to-date graphics, but these are becoming standard on even the cheapest notebooks these days.

A 50Kbit/sec. or 100Kbit/sec. Internet connection is adequate. This allows the peripatetic among us to use a Wi-Fi connection at a hotel or cafe and even a cell-network data card to connect.

To get a handle on the state of the art of videoconferencing services, I signed up for three business services that let people talk, see one another, interact and exchange ideas online: SightSpeed Business, InterCall Genesys Meeting Center and WebEx Meeting Center. They all put businesspeople face to face and offer the ability to collaborate with each other. They differ, however, on price, how easy they are to use and the quality of the video they display.

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