We’ve covered video conferencing long enough to see three significant efforts in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s fail spectacularly for almost the same two reasons: proprietary hardware and software, and very little interoperability. You wouldn’t buy a cell phone that is just connected to another phone from the same provider, would you? However, it is not uncommon for a video conferencing provider’s hardware and software to work only with hardware from the same provider.
Although it seems that this market has stagnated in the last century, times are changing. Lately, I’ve been working with hardware from vendors like Poly, which works with Zoom and Microsoft Teams. (Teams seem to be moving towards Zoom, which is consistent with its current effort to adopt interoperability and open source.
Microsoft is the perfect example to show the benefits, in general, of moving from a traditional approach to property to the new and much more interesting, collaborative and cooperative world of today. It handles well and does not seem to be exposed to the risk caused by antitrust issues around dominant proprietary vendors such as Apple.
Let’s talk about the slow but necessary evolution of collaboration technology that will eventually redefine the collaboration space.
The attraction of a patented approach
Using your own model has its advantages. You can better ensure quality by owning or controlling all items. You don’t have to worry so much about competitive pricing because your customers need to buy components and software from you. So, as Apple often demonstrates, you can raise prices to increase revenue and profit. This approach is easier than if you had to set a price in a competitive market where prices are often fluid.
You don’t have to worry as much about losing customers, because the cost of leaving the platform closed is high. And you don’t have to focus heavily on customer satisfaction, because once again, your customer can’t move fast. You can see why this model was once favored by most technology companies and is still by companies like Apple and Oracle. It seems that, at least for a while, you can only mine your customers for money.
The big problem of property
The problem, especially now, is that it’s much harder to keep the customer locked. Among other reasons, the increasing use of analytics to find and reduce excessive operating costs allows customers to know when they are overloaded. Once a critical mass of customers realize this and a competitor offers an acceptable way to migrate to a more open architecture, the market is likely to return.
This proprietary approach is particularly problematic in areas of communication, such as telephony and video conferencing; Buyers need open solutions that work well with others because they need to work with their colleagues and customers, many of whom are now in remote locations.
During the pandemic, this became even more obvious, as these systems may not work well together even in the same house. You have one system, your husband has another, and the children’s school has another. Home hardware, in particular, must work with everyone’s collaborative solution; otherwise it will have to be replicated with other hardware that works with the other systems. This can dramatically increase the cost of sourcing and supporting employees, while reducing your potential for collaboration.
The long-term success or failure of this current expansion of the video conferencing market will largely depend on the scale and support of interoperability and hardware options.
A next solution?
The number one goal of any communications product, whether it’s a smartphone or a video offering, is to communicate successfully. It can’t work as well if it only works with products from a single supplier.
That’s one of the reasons I was so optimistic about the Nvidia Omniverse last week. It provides a universal framework in which more vendors and more hardware solutions could eventually work and suggests a future path. It is a decoupling of hardware and service, as we do today with other cloud solutions, allowing customers to choose the best hardware for the job knowing that it will work. This relatively open approach is how the smartphone market works; Operators provide connectivity and almost any phone will work with almost any operator.
Ironically, with computers, we’re almost there. Your PC will work with virtually any central video conferencing backend. But the interface, the software, prevents it.
Eventually, companies like Nvidia will change that dynamic and take over the market, leaving behind the same people as what happened to the old IBM and the old AT&T. Given the industry’s focus on interoperability, I can’t understand why some companies don’t see this threat and embrace it before causing them critical damage.
Conclusion: interoperability is king
Interoperability remains the top priority of any communications product, however it is the most important unmet requirement for video conferencing providers. I will never understand how the players on the market do not understand this.
The question I have is whether we will reach the right solution during this 10-year cycle or whether it will be a repetition of the failures we have seen in the last three cycles. Remember that saying, «Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it»? We do not seem to be learning, and our collective and collaborative future may depend on ultimately achieving this right.