The Conferencing industry is in the midst of fantastic innovation and progress. Convergence of various technologies into single product solutions are transforming how our business meetings take place and how traditional business functions are conducted on a day-to-day basis. Similar transformations are taking place in other facets of everyday life, most notably social networking, mobile communications and the e-marketplace. Examples of this change are such notables as Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, Blackberry, ebay, paypal and online banking. Conferencing is running parallel with these industries through a quieter series of advancements. To better understand the direction the conferencing industry is headed, it helps to understand where it has been and other milestones that have occurred.
The first form of teleconferencing to take hold in the workplace was the audio conference call. AT&T basically started the commercial conference call industry in the 1960’s. By the 1980’s, conference calls were taking hold in most large corporations. By the 1990’s, conference calls were commonplace in all industries. Originally, AT&T had 100% market share on the service side. They were joined by most of the other major carriers in the 1990’s after deregulation in 1986. A few conferencing “boutiques” started during this time, but they were dependant on the carriers for telephony services, so the rates were extremely high no matter who provided the service. All conference calls during these decades were conducted “old school”. Users would call to make a reservation for every conference, receive a one-time number, and all calls were fully staffed by operators. The same procedure used currently for Operator Assisted or Event calls. It wasn’t until the second half of the 1990’s that the first major breakthrough occurred. The first automated conference bridges were readily available for commercial use. This was the invention that turned audio conferencing into a Billion dollar industry and allowed the boutiques to lessen their dependence on the major carriers, creating more competition on the service side of our industry. These automated bridges allowed users to have their own conferencing accounts with permanent dial-in numbers and no reservations required. This reservation-less service allowed every user to conduct calls without going through any setup whatsoever. Usage skyrocketed every year across every industry. Because the service requires far fewer resources on the operational side, and manufacturers were able to reduce costs to build more and more bridges, rates steadily declined roughly 500% from 1995 to 2005. Corporations went from paying 50 cents per minute to 10 cents per minute. Suddenly conferencing was not only user-friendly, but readily affordable. No longer was it a tool of only senior level executives. Everyone throughout an organization could use the service to reduce expenses internally and externally.
The origins of Video Conferencing are a bit different from teleconferencing. Many different technologies were developed from post WWII through the 1970’s for various video applications, including remote television cameras, manned space flights, and early picture phones. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that suitable digital telephony networks became available, such as ISDN, that were able to transmit compressed video and audio signals well enough to handle commercial video teleconferencing. Clunky and expensive, these systems worked their way into corporate boardrooms. PictureTel Corporation developed the Concorde series of Codec’s in the 1990’s that gave Video Conferencing a big boost in credibility across all industries. Price was still an issue, with most room systems costing about $40,000 per site, plus high recurring usage charges. Then came the Polycom Viewstation explosion in 1999. Polycom developed a codec that not only cost 400% less than the competition, but also utilized the IP protocol H.323, thus enabling organizations to bypass traditional telephony connections and switch to IP based video.
The Viewstation series became the industry leader in its first quarter of shipping product and the VTC market eventually became a billion dollar industry of its own. Advancements in MCU’s (the ability to join more than 2 video sites in a conference) and various other component, transmission speed and quality upgrades have made video a vital component across all size organizations. Today, we can conduct videoconferences in HD quality right from our own workstations.
Web Conferencing is the newest segment of the conferencing industry, and the one that would have the biggest impact on the industry as a whole by causing most of today’s technology changes. It’s challenging to determine when it became the web conferencing we are familiar with today, but I’ll give it a shot. Intranet programs operating in private environments have been around for quite some time. The most famous would be the PLATO mainframe program in the 70’s, which had many similar components as today’s web conferencing. The first truly similar program for business consumption was the release of Lotus Notes in 1989. This had most of the major web conference components installed, but again, basically a private-access environment. This did spur on another round of innovation in the early 1990’s, when many small programs surfaced in various industries. In 1997, we had our industries first successful, mass commercial launch of open participation web conferencing software. Placeware Auditorium was the product and by 1999 the industry had over 1 million registered web conference users. Placeware was purchased by Microsoft in 2003, and still exists todays as Live Meeting. WebEx was the next dominant player in the marketplace and eventually took the #1 spot in the marketplace that now has over 50 million users. As WebEx and many others started to experiment with VOIP audio and Video features within their tools, the industry had their next big benchmark….integrating it all into a viable, daily tool that does it all for business and organizational meetings. That day has arrived with an array of products and versions from all 3 segments of the conferencing industry coming together through a series of innovative tools, acquisitions and mergers.
Up next? Looking at these segments and sharing our findings….