The birth of video conferencing

In the late 1870’s, after the first ever telephone call was made, people did not wait long to imagine the concept of being able to see the person on the other end of the line, while communicating with them audibly.  It was not until 40 years later in 1927 that this concept was developed by AT&T Company, which started experimenting with videophones.  Germany also experimented with video conferencing in the late 1930’s, with phones that could send still-frame photos.  Fast-forward another 40 years to the 1970s, when AT&T began using video conferencing for its Picturephone services, which marked the birth of video conferencing as we know it today.

With the emergence of the digital revolution in the 1980’s, the introduction of video codecs for the corporate market, and the rise of broadband services like ISDN, sending images over the internet became practical for business, security and professional use.  While some university campuses began using webcams (a term not introduced until a few years later) internally as early as 1990, the first ever-commercial webcam for the consumer market, the“QuickCam” manufactured by Connectix, was released in 1994.

The QuickCam only allowed 64 shades of greyscale pictures at 320 x 240-pixel resolution (about 0.8 Megapixels – another term that did not exist in 1994). However, one could achieve a colour image by taking three individual still shots and applying red, green and blue camera filters in front of the lens. However, this meant that someone would need to sit perfectly still for about 30 seconds to have a colour picture taken, which almost goes back to the photography of the 1800’s – which is perhaps why nobody ever smiled in photos. The QuickCam connected to the Parallel-port of your PC, as well as the keyboard port for 5 volts of power with a pass-through connector – which really makes you appreciate a good old USB port. Connectix was bought out by Logitech a few years after the launch of QuickCam, and the company was completely rebranded.  Logitech went on to launch the first PTZ webcam in July 2003.

Windows 95 played a major part in the evolution of consumer-based VC. The Microsoft NetMeeting feature, originally bundled with later versions of Windows 95 and Windows Vista, quickly became a popular way to chat, share content and video conference over the web. It was, however, removed from the Start menu shortly before Microsoft started to endorse the use of newer applications, such as Remote Desktop and Skype.

Selecting a platform

To understand VC Systems, we need to examine the idea of Protocols. These are standards used to communicate over a network.  Different service providers use different protocols to connect.  Essentially, it is like two people, speaking two different languages to each other – unless one of them knows how to translate, the conversation is lost.

When it comes to evaluating H.323 versus SIP application layer protocols, we have to evaluate the pros and cons of each to find the best possible solution for what the customer wants to achieve. While there is little doubt that SIP is the best option for multimedia communication and conferencing on low-bandwidth connections, H.323 has proven to be a better choice for online gaming, social media and file sharing, because it uses binary codes and there is more control over the usage.

Both H.323 and SIP have their unique features and advantages.  However, when it comes to interoperability and reliability, it has been proven time and again that H.323 is the better choice. This is mainly because H.323 has inbuilt recovery features that account for network or device failure, which is found wanting in SIP.  Both protocols were launched in 1996 and have since been adopted by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and are widely used by all the top players in the VC market.

What makes interoperability so important for the VC market? 

Well, think about it this way:  when you use your smartphone to call someone, you don’t worry about which service provider, operating software or physical hardware they are using at the other end, nor do you need to stress about whether you should buy additional licenses or connect through a bridging system to place your call.  In telephony, interoperability is a given fact, and any device speaks to any other device. We dial a number, and it connects us immediately.  So, with today’s technology, why should this problem exist in the video world?

Skype and GoTo Meeting are some of the oldest players in the VC market when it comes to consumer-based desktop VC, both being established in 2003.  However, in the early days, GoTo Meeting could only be used for content sharing and Skype only for VC.  Another disadvantage is that they can only communicate within their own platforms.  Another more recently launched platform  for VC is Google Duo. However, it also imposes limitations as it only talks to other Duo users.

Interoperability is not an issue for point-to-point VC calls between colleagues within an organisation, which is fairly simple to set up, no matter which service provider or platform you choose to use.  But what happens when you need to dial the outside world?  Often, the customer has made an enormous investment in a specific hard or soft codec solution that they believed would work for them, just to be told that unfortunately, due to protocol and brand discrepancies, they won’t be able to connect over VC. If they do wish to connect with clients who are using a different platform, they will need to make an additional investment in some sort of Bridging or Cascading infrastructure.  This can quickly sour the relationship and trust between a dealer and the end-user. It therefore stands to reason that one of the first factors that integrators need to consider when specifying VC solutions for companies is interoperability.