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Desktop Video Conferencing: A Work In Progress

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It sounds like a good idea: connect remote employees with desktop webcams and instant messaging applications. The reality—getting it all to work correctly—is a bit more complicated.

Tying our small business's employees together with desktop video conferencing seemed like a great idea. In fact, it's still a great idea. Imagine the possibilities: telecommuters would feel more in touch with their colleagues. Brainstorming sessions and annual salary reviews would have a human element. And heck, maybe we'd even save some long-distance money.

While our business, a 17-person publishing company, has made some progress over the past few months in implementing a desktop video system, the results to date have been mixed. Many employees can't use the technology, and not all those that do are enthusiastic about it. Even when we try to use video, the conferencing technology is inconsistent, undependable and disappointing. But that's not to say it's a disaster. It's just part of the challenges of being an early adopter.

Why Video?

Our company was formed in mid-1999, and publishes two high-tech magazines, a Web site, a few E-mail newsletters, stuff like that. We're not what we'd call nerds; well, four of our current employees are either geeks or have geek-like tendencies, but the rest consider technology to be a tool, nothing more. The chief geeks are myself—one of the co-founders—and our newly hired IT guy. The rest of the staff are sales people, artists, reporters, editors, clerical staff, customer-service people, an office manager... the usual mix you'd find in a non-retail small business.

Communication has always been a vital need, both within the company and reaching out to our customers and (in the case of the reporters, editors, and sales staff) the industry at large. Physically, we're organized with one main office out on Long Island, N.Y., that's home to 10 of the employees. The other seven work out of their homes, scattered from California to New Hampshire. Some of the Long Island workers travel with laptops or occasionally work from home; others never leave the office.

When we first set up the company, we implemented E-mail and a private Web site to facilitate communications. In 2001, the reporters and editors began using AOL Instant Messenger informally. (There's a long tradition of instant messaging in publishing companies, initially supported on Atex digital typesetting machines in the 1980s.) By early 2003, the use of AIM had spread to all staff, to the point where new hires were issued an AIM ID along with their E-mail address. There's no particular reason why AIM was selected, by the way; it just happened. Instant messaging has become essential across our company, even to the point of IM'ing someone to say, "Is now a good time for me to call you?"

However, even with the immediacy of AIM, it became obvious that some of the telecommuters felt isolated; some only got out to the head office once a year, and others not even that often. (I'm the unique exception: although I work out of California, I'm back in the NY office every couple of months.)

To try to solve that problem, I began experimenting with video conferencing in the spring of 2004, taking advantage of the fact that two employees—myself and another telecommuter—had received free iSight cameras by attending the Apple WorldWide Developer Conference in 2003. (All attendees were given the camera, by the way.) Initial results were deceptively good, and so a broader rollout was started. That's when things bogged down.

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