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Will videoconferencing replace the telephone?

Stephen Lawson | Nov. 25, 2010
Video sessions are getting cheaper and more convenient but may not always be the right call

SAN FRANCISCO, 24 NOVEMBER 2010 - In a famous exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, AT&T Bell Labs demonstrated the Picturephone Mod 1, a small, oval device with a camera and a screen that allowed two people to see each other while they talked over the telephone network. Six years later, the device was still in trials.

AT&T promoted the Picturephone as the telephone of the future, but high cost, inconvenience and a lack of compatible devices turned it into the phone of dreams instead. The same fate awaited many more videoconferencing technologies over the following decades, as systems sprouted up in boardrooms and some offices but mostly were reserved for scheduled meetings and for high-level executives.

In the past few years, the cost and convenience of video calling have made big advances. Smartphones, tablets and PCs fulfill the promise of the Picturephone with widely available hardware and software, while in higher price brackets, the experience is more immersive than ever. But even though making phone calls with video is now nearly as practical as doing so without, it's unlikely that the purported phone of the future will ever be the everyday phone of the present.

This has been a big year for video calling, with the introduction of Apple's FaceTime for the iPhone and Cisco's UMI TelePresence for home HDTVs. Third-party software and services, such as Skype, have made video calls possible with PCs and cheap webcams for years and are now coming to smartphones as well.

For people who want to see who they're talking to, there are fewer barriers than ever to completing the picture. Yet video calling has yet to achieve the worry-free ease of traditional phone calls or even mobile text messages, analysts say. And even if it did, it's not clear people would want to use the space-age wonder of 1964 for every call.

"The research shows people having serious interest in the whole concept of video telephony, but I don't believe they're ready to make it ... their constant form of communication," said Tim Bajarin, a longtime technology analyst at Creative Strategies.

Part of the problem is that most people just aren't ready to go on camera every time they want to talk on the phone. In focus groups Bajarin has observed, consumers -- even supposedly tech-loving teenagers -- were concerned about their appearance. "You want to look presentable," Bajarin said. Even in business, that isn't a given, if telecommuters are included.

Video also shows the caller's location and surroundings, which may pose a problem even in an office, said Wainhouse Research analyst Ira Weinstein. "Video sometimes reveals too much about a situation," he said. Anyone with a messy cubicle who takes calls from a remote boss might agree with that.


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