In a recent post I looked at how mass adoption of video collaboration might be enabled by emerging technologies such as WebRTC. That article focused more on the technical aspects of WebRTC. In this post I want to take a look at video collaboration from an end user perspective and offer real-world examples. How might “democratisation” of this technology empower the consumer and change the way they interact with organisations forever?
First lets consider the current status of “collaboration beyond borders” - by that I mean the ability of an organisation to effectively collaborate using audio, video and data beyond its own network and to more than just their own employees.
Video collaboration at a B2B level has always been possible using ISDN. IP connectivity has also always been possible with any IP enabled endpoint but it typically required detailed firewall configurations for all involved parties, as well as complicated dialling schemes that looked like Egyptian Hieroglyphics to most people. Dedicated video focused edge devices such as Polycom RealPresence Access Director have definitely improved the situation and make it much easier for an external device such as a tablet or smartphone to have a mobile video client installed, configured and connected into a corporate video network. Standards such as H.323 Annex O and SIP URI have made dialling between companies much more recognisable and understandable as they package the required dialling information into a form similar to an email address. Some solutions such as Polycom RealPresence CloudAXIS have gone a step further and taken all the connectivity and embedded it into a web browser. This allows the user experience to now be simplified to just a click of a hyperlink.
However all of these solutions still require some level of centralised infrastructure, configuration, provisioning and potentially a software install to help ensure a successful connection. Many organisations, particularly service providers, have looked to help solve this by providing the centralised infrastructure that can enable this without an organisation having to invest in it themselves. But even with this kind of scenario there are still issues to be solved such as global dial plans, network to network connectivity (with preservation of quality of service etc.). Again, there have been developments in this area such as the ENUM standard that focuses on creating a global numbering scheme, and organisations such as the Open Visual Collaboration Consortium (OVCC), of which Polycom is a founding member, that help define connectivity between different network and conferencing service providers.
But we still have not yet achieved the vision of a true global connected environment that delivers for video what global roaming agreements and national numbering schemes did for the mobile phone.
WebRTC could help deliver on the vision of a truly connected video collaboration environment but not necessarily in the way you might expect. Most of the efforts until now (including those described above) have looked to replicate the telephony model when wanting to expand video connectivity across networks i.e. I am registered with a unique identifier (think: mobile phone number), and there is a central registry of those identifiers (think: mobile service provider), and then a process for resolving those identifiers beyond my service provider (think: interconnect and roaming agreements).
That works well for an always-on type such as voice, but I think we are still a fair distance away from the mass population wanting an always-on video telephony service. At this point in time if users want the added value that a video interaction brings it is much more likely to be for a specific task or purpose rather than for general communications. WebRTC and its ability to be easily and tightly integrated into web based application environments might just be the avenue to enable that.
Let’s consider a couple of specific scenarios where there is an immediate task to be completed and voice or email alone would be insufficient for the requirement and add delay, ambiguity or additional complications to the process.
As a first example let’s consider customer service.
Maybe I want to take advantage of a special offer from my financial institution e.g. an advantageous savings rate, but I don’t have time to get to a local branch before the offer closes. I might be able to do all the necessary transactions online but that usually provides little opportunity for resolution of any queries I might have other than secured messaging or web chat. Technologies such as WebRTC could potentially enable a “click to conference with an advisor” button. As I make my way through the online process I could establish a video collaboration session in my browser with a professional advisor, have all my questions answered face-to-face and complete the process in a matter of minutes. The outcome would be more business for the bank and a happier customer.
We are already seeing banks and other finance organisations use video to connect customers to a central pool of experts or advisors, but it is usually done today within the branch office back to headquarters i.e. all within the network and control of the organisation. WebRTC allows for a similar experience but with the potential freedom of location that the web delivers. I believe that all the building blocks from a technology perspective are coming together. It is now just a case of determining how best to use them. This belief is also shared by others who follow this industry. For an external perspective I asked for some thoughts from Craig Borowski from Software Advice, who focuses on telecom research and the Hello Operator VoIP blog.
“It's often said that necessity is the mother of invention, but I disagree. In the course of researching cutting-edge business telephony systems, we often find the technology preceding, albeit slightly, the best application or use-case of that technology. In other words, the invention comes along first and only later is its true necessity discovered.
WebRTC is a great example. The technology has been around for several years, but companies are still discovering the best ways to implement it, just like in that example of financial institutions. It takes time for businesses to figure out how to best integrate it, but when they do, the results can be revolutionary.”
As a second example, imagine a user who may have been in a minor car accident with no injuries, but has the inconvenience of needing to get their vehicle repaired.
Obviously their most pressing item is to get the relevant insurance claim filed. Normally this would require a trip to a local body shop, potentially co-ordinating with the insurance company for the visit of an assessor, filing of the claim paperwork and so on. Anyone who has had the misfortune to have to complete an insurance claim form knows how complicated this process can be. Lack of information provided to the insurance company, and lack of understanding of what is being asked for, all add delay and frustration to the process.
But now imagine being able to complete everything online, connecting live to a claim advisor by video if necessary - maybe even being able to walk out to the vehicle using a laptop and webcam, or a tablet or smartphone, to show the claims advisor exactly what damage you are talking about in real time. Again - a scenario where real time video collaboration between a business and its customer will streamline a process, reduce frustration and improve communication (and ultimately customer satisfaction).
Interestingly as video moves to the consumer space for B2C interaction it does raise some other areas that need to be addressed - such as the back end call centre environment.
Whilst the front end that a customer interacts with is almost certainly going to be web-based the business organisation will most likely want to utilise existing call centre technology (which is probably VoIP / SIP based). Hence as referenced in my previous post WebRTC is unlikely to thrive and gain mass adoption if it exists only as an island. The opportunity for organisations like Polycom, as well as traditional IP based call centre providers, is to expand their offerings to support emerging technologies such as WebRTC but ensure that they can be fully integrated into existing voice and video collaboration solutions.
As well as considering the technology required to support consumer based video interaction there are other topics to be considered such as the physical call centre environment itself. Customers will expect to see a professional, attentive customer relationship advisor, and their physical surroundings also need to reflect this - if you were talking to your bank advisor you wouldn’t want to see dozens of people walking behind them in the passageways between call centre cubicles. Hence organisations need to consider how to give the impression of privacy to individual conversations, removal of background distractions etc. within the call centre environment so that each interaction is of the highest quality experience.
I think it is quite clear that video collaboration will definitely make the leap “beyond borders” - it is already doing so at the B2B level and B2C interaction is only a matter of time. WebRTC will definitely help as an enabling technology at the consumer end, but the back end (both from a technology and from a physical environment) also needs to be considered. Video enabled communications and collaboration will start to become an accepted way for businesses and customers to interact - but it will be a task driven interaction for the foreseeable future.
Read Nick's other posts on 'The View from APAC' here.