The argument for dedicated collaboration hardware

Maybe a PC isn’t the ideal communications tool for video and audio. If not, then what is?

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One of the mistakes I think the tech industry has made is in trying to make a PC into a communications device for video and audio. We’ve always had dedicated communications devices – phones. And they’ve remained separate from other tools for a reason: you often have to communicate and create at the same time, and if you use the same device to do both, it tends to reduce the effectiveness of both.

In short, we’re asking a PC to do too many things using the same display and hardware. This isn’t a multi-tasking problem; the CPU and GPU have more performance than needed for tasks. But our renewed focus on reliable communications has exceeded our focus on creative work. The ongoing pandemic has made things worse; everyone needs to be connected from wherever they’re working, but they also need to be able to productively work.

Let me explain.

The multi-use problem

If you’re like me, you’ve attended a ton of video conferences at this point and likely discovered a lot of recurring problems.  Text messages, often embarrassing or inappropriate, pop up in the middle of a presentation; backups, virus scans, or software updates degrade your video and audio; or your PC crashes, cutting off all communications if. You’ve also likely experienced driver problems that disable the camera, microphone or speaker and the lack of screen real estate during a call.

The problems can be even worse in a virtual classroom because a teacher can easily lose contact with the student (who could disconnect on purpose, claiming a crash). The teacher can’t help when a crash occurs and may be unable to effectively manage student behavior because whatever Chromebook or cheap PC is being used doesn’t have enough network or computing bandwidth. And if a student is using    a laptop, the camera will be too low and the remote viewer instead gets an unattractive nose hair shot.

(I know people that refuse to use their laptop camera for calls for this very reason.) 

Summed up: We are asking a piece of hardware that wasn’t designed for communications to not only do communications but continue to do all of the other things a PC must do. We generally don’t spec hardware for this; otherwise, we’d choose PCs with larger, or even multiple, screens and more performance for every home worker. 

The case for dedicated hardware

With dedicated communications hardware, communications are assured – regardless of what is happening with the PC.  This would mean less disruption in meetings, better video conferencing performance, better and more careful camera placement, and an experience far closer to what a phone delivers than what a PC was designed to do.

As an employee, you are better able to take notes because you have the full PC screen in front of you.  Your texts and alerts have no chance of entering your broadcast stream – even if you are presenting. (Most solutions provide for a PC feed, but these alerts show up on the PC screen, not on the remote communications screen if done in multi-monitor mode.) The experience is far closer to what you’d get if you were using your laptop for slides at an in-person event. 

Some of the dedicated devices could accept and present the slides themselves, further reducing the risk of problems. And if your PC does fail, you might lose your slides but ynot our connection, allowing you to keep presenting while resetting the PC. For the many folks in the audience, the broadcast experience would be unaffected. 

Dedicated hardware is also generally more secure, so it’s less likely someone in the audience during a confidential meeting has inadvertently loaded a screen scraper that broadcasts your confidential meeting to a hostile audience. For what it’s worth, I’m convinced, given the history of people mining confidential information to get a stock advantage, that this is an SEC event just waiting to happen. 

Wrapping up

This year, we’ve had to pivot to this “New Normal” where most employees and students are operating remotely and using PCs with services like Zoom to do meetings. Zoombombing is not only now a thing, but we’ve likely all experienced crashes, embarrassing moments on screen, and even unflattering up-the-nose video feeds. 

Dedicated hardware is what we have almost always used for communication because it is both more reliable and doesn’t force the PC to do what it wasn’t designed to do.  While a dedicated device is more costly, it better assures reliable interaction. Whether we are talking work or school, it results in an experience far closer to what we had when we were allowed to work in the office.

In the end, though, I favor this path because it results in a far less stressful New Normal. And we all are experiencing far too much stress than is good for us at the moment.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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