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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

But the problems can be practical, too. It's not really possible to multitask during a video call, as is often done while talking on the phone, Weinsten noted. Video chats while driving can be counted out, too.

Despite all the advances of the past few years, a video call still isn't as easy to make as a voice call, Weinstein said. Users need to find out whether the videoconferencing platforms they're using are compatible, and often there is a question of how much it will cost. Despite vendors voicing commitments to interoperability, there is still a variety of specifications in use. In enterprise settings, these are not issues that commonly come up about traditional phone calls, Weinstein said.

The opportunities to use videoconferencing, however, continue to expand. In June, Apple introduced the iPhone 4 with a front-facing camera and FaceTime, a built-in video chat application that worked on any iPhone 4 over a Wi-Fi connection. CEO Steve Jobs said the company would submit the FaceTime protocol as a standard so other devices could hop on. Samsung's newly introduced tablet, the Galaxy Tab, also offers video chat capability. And in October, Cisco extended its TelePresence high-end conferencing technology to the home with Umi, a system that uses existing TVs and costs about $600 with a monthly service charge of $24.99. Though somewhat pricey for consumers, Umi costs dramatically less than enterprise TelePresence systems. Costs are coming down for large business systems, too, with recent entrants such as Logitech's LifeSize division.

But even in enterprises, video will probably not take the place of one-to-one calls, Creative Strategies' Bajarin said.

"It has its greatest value, in business settings, when you're involved in collaborative processes," Bajarin said. For a simple phone call, "You really want the fast process of getting the connection to the one person," he said.

In homes, too, video still tends to occupy a niche, he said.

"Video calls tend to be scheduled, and somewhat a special event," Bajarin said. For example, families may set times for grandparents to see and chat with their grandchildren. Despite the fact that those who have the technology typically can use it at all hours, such calls aren't yet spontaneous impulses.

A survey that the Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded in September seems to back up that analysis. On any given day, only 4 percent of Internet users in the U.S. participate in voice calls, video chat or videoconferencing, Pew said. That was up from just 2 percent in April 2009, but still a small slice of the whole.

Just 19 percent of U.S. adults have ever tried video calling of any kind, according to the survey of 3,001 adults. Perhaps not surprisingly, Internet users in the 18-29 age group were most likely to have done so, but only 29 percent of them had, Pew said.


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