The rise of collaboration systems

20The world of business is changing – and the AV industry is, as ever, quick to respond to new requirements. Nowhere, believes Ian McMurray, is that more true than how it is supporting and enabling new ways of working together.

According to Lifesize chief executive Craig Malloy, the global cloud-based conferencing market currently represents a US$9.4 billion ($A12.3 billiion) opportunity. That’s a big number – but wait. That’s just ‘cloud-based’ – and it’s just ‘conferencing’. Researcher Markets and Markets believes the total enterprise collaboration market will be worth $92 billion by 2019 (and, for what it’s worth, the same company sees the cloud-based market being valued at $28 billion in three years’ time.)

I tend to be sceptical of market research, although I’d be the first to admit I’m sure it has its uses. Two things caught my attention here, though. The first, of course, is the sheer size of the numbers, and the compelling nature of the forecast growth trajectory. Second, and in my mind, more interesting, is what it tells us about how the market is fragmenting.

Time was, it was ‘premises-based’ (which we didn’t call it back then, because there wasn’t an alternative – in the same way we never referred to analogue watches until digital ones came along…). Video conferencing took place in dedicated suites full of expensive equipment – and by one of those wonderful paradoxes that now make you smile, many video conferencing attendees had to travel some distance to attend.) And: those suites pretty much relied on dedicated – and often flaky – lines in order to communicate with each other.

The world has moved on. The communications infrastructure is pervasive – and highly reliable (not to mention, for the most part, fast). And: the world has gone mobile-mad. (And there’s a subject I’d rather not get started on…). As such, it was inevitable that video conferencing would morph into something different.

Take UCaaS, for example – Unified Communications as a Service – which was largely enabled by the cloud, and made what used to be called video conferencing a business facility that was more widely affordable. But that transition was as nothing when compared to where we are now.

The real deal

What was video conferencing, and then unified communications is now ‘collaboration’, which is starting to look very much like the real deal – in other words, technology is starting to adapt to the way people work, rather than vice versa.

Nowhere is that more true than in the concept of ‘huddle rooms’ – which I mentioned in my last column as being among the hottest topics at ISE 2016.

Market analyst Wainhouse Research believes that huddle rooms should be an integral part of every organisation’s meeting room and collaboration strategy. The company cites as its reasons the addition of millennials to the work environment; the enhanced interest (and in some cases use) of open work spaces and telecommuting; and the increased need to support large numbers of collaborative and distributed work teams.

And here’s an interesting thing. The same company thinks there are anything up to around two million group video conferencing rooms around the world – but estimates there may be up to as many as 50 million huddle rooms. That’s a whole lot of huddling.

Fifty million may seem a large number for a phenomenon that is a relatively new one to many in the AV industry. What’s important to understand, though, is that as office landscapes have changed – more open plan, more low wall cubicles, greater globalisation, more remote working, dispersed teams – small meeting rooms have become essential. The big change is that our industry has now recognised the opportunity to equip those meeting spaces – and has the technology to do so.

Seamless

Something that very much interests me is how ‘collaboration’ is no longer purely in the AV sphere. Microsoft’s Office 365 (but does it work in leap years?) is specifically designed to support and facilitate collaboration – sharing files and projects and calendars. Where once, if you needed to share your work, you attached it to an email or uploaded it to WeTransfer, YouSendIt, Dropbox or Google Drive, SharePoint is now tightly integrated within the Office suite, making the process of collaboration almost completely seamless.

Of course, being Microsoft, it was never going to be content with just developing Office to facilitate collaboration. The company’s acquisition of Skype in 2011 saw its own Lync replaced by Skype for Business, taking it into territory previously occupied by WebEx and GoToMeeting. And, not satisfied with trying to own that space, Microsoft announced the Surface Hub in 2015, positioning it as the centrepiece for small-to-medium collaboration spaces. Almost a year later, the Surface Hub is finally shipping and it will be interesting to see if the installed reality lives up to the launch hype. Certainly, many visitors to ISE were seeing it as a potential game-changer.

And where Microsoft goes, Google will rarely be far behind. It too has set its sights on the huddle room with its Chromebox which includes a camera, a microphone speaker or two, a remote control and the box itself. Crucially, it’s designed to integrate with Google’s Hangouts collaboration offering.

For most huddle rooms, a central screen such as the Surface Hub will be the focal point – although there will also be a place for screens on carts rather than fixed installations for maximum flexibility and/or cost-effectiveness. In fact, for many, portability is a key requirement for AV equipment destined for huddle rooms. That’s closely followed by ease of use – and by affordability. Huddle rooms are, after all, about ad hoc, impromptu meetings and informality, about brainstorming – a far cry from the formality (and expense) of the video conferencing suites we once knew.

The screen (or interactive white board) is where participants ‘throw’ content from their mobile devices: laptops, tablets, phones and share their content, so some kind of wireless streaming device is a key requirement. A huddle room will likely also include a phone system for audio conferencing – and perhaps also a simple video camera, strategically located, to enable one huddle room to communicate with another.

Inevitably – and thankfully – there are a growing number of products designed specifically for huddle room applications. For control, AMX’s Enzo is one, Crestron’s HD-MD-400-C-E is another, Kramer’s VIA Connect yet another. In audio, Revolabs has a range of offerings, and Shure recently extended its Microflex wireless range. When it comes to screens, Smart – who would probably claim to have single-handedly invented the IWB market – now has the Kapp iQ, while InFocus has the Mondopad. Logitech provides its ConferenceCam Connect which it describes as a portable, all-in-one videoconference solution. In fact, it seems as if the entire AV industry is positioning itself as a huddle room supplier, such is the enthusiasm for it – not to mention the forecast growth in the market.

Here to stay

It looks as if huddle rooms are here to stay. Of course, the industry hasn’t been without its share of mis-steps. Remember the hype around ‘telepresence’? The idea that the CEO could address his people and they would feel that he was there with them in the room, even though he was on the other side of the planet? At the time- it seemed we were only a step away from teleportation. “Beam me up, Scotty.” It’s unlikely huddle rooms will go the same way.

Do huddle rooms make the video conferencing suite redundant? Absolutely not. For larger, more structured meetings – geared, perhaps, more towards making formal presentations to colleagues in remote locations – they’ll continue to have an important role. The key thing to understand is that huddling complements, rather than replaces, video conferencing.

For integrators, that’s the important thing. Huddle rooms are an incremental opportunity that leverage their existing expertise in video conferencing – but on a scaled-down basis. Each huddle room won’t represent anything like the same revenue opportunity as a single, well-equipped video conferencing suite – but cumulatively, they become an attractive proposition.

Socially, it’s become a sharing world. Now, business is heading in a similar direction. But will we ever be able to mind meld like the Vulcans in Star Trek? Not in my lifetime, for sure. Huddle rooms are likely to be as close as we get for the foreseeable future.

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Reference: Connected Home

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