A cluster of new standards has cleared the way for a new era of videoconferencing, with different clients interoperating across a range of environments, including the Internet and the PSTN, according to one of the men who drove the standards through.
Rich Baker, CTO of PictureTel, the leader in the ISDN-based videoconferencing market, says the new video standards are an extension of agreements on voice-over-IP technology, which saw more than 50 companies converge behind the H.323 standard.
Baker says Intel's decision to drop its proprietary efforts and swing in behind the International Multimedia Telecommunications Consortium, a vendors' group formed to promote standards, was crucial.
"We're now seeing companies like Microsoft and Cisco represented on the IMTC board, and of course the voice-over-IP people are there. It's the only game in town--there are no competing standards bodies for vendors now. Even Netscape, which invested in Insoft technology for a while, has teamed up with Apple to make an H.323-compliant conferencing product. It's all in the one place."
The H.323 standard was announced by the International Telecommunications Union in June, as part of a cluster of standards aimed at bringing conferencing into line the way the "V-dot" standards did for modems. Although it was designed for LAN-based video and audioconferencing, a third major standards body, the Internet Engineering Task Force was asked to formalise quality of service (QoS) protocols which would also make H.323 "Internet-ready".
The IETF responded with the bandwidth reservation protocol RSVP, and the Real-time Transport Protocol, which defines the way compressed audio and video are packetised and synchronised.
One of Baker's roles on the IMTC board was completing the standards loop by "getting the guys with the silk ties, the IMTC, in the same room as the guys with facial hair and sandals from the IETF. The protocols are basically in place now--what we need is some effort on infrastructure. We need a network."
IMTC members have also played a strong role in interoperability testing and Baker says a third round of tests is about to begin. They also involve H.342, the telephone conferencing standard which adopts PictureTel's own video compression algorithim, and the H.320 standard for ISDN.
Although PictureTel's new single-board Live200p is an ISDN conferencing product for Windows 95, the company will be concentrating hard on what it sees as a boom market in LAN conferencing once H.323 compliant hardware comes through early next year. More and more consumer PCs are also shipping with videoconferencing capability, says Baker, "and by the end of the year, that will all be standards-compliant."
The key to the consumer market will be the rapid deployment of "XDSL" (any of the basket of "last mile" high-speed modulated data services including ADSL, VDSL, SDSL and HDSL) says Baker.
"There's no need to wait over this. The major RBOCs are already making huge investments. I think you'll soon see a huge rollout of XDSL technologies. It's a beautiful technology, because it can be selectively delivered--you can get the flavour you want. All you get from your telco is a board, which is similar to a modem, and has a phone jack and an RJ45 connector, which is read by the computer as 10-BaseT Ethernet. There's a destination card at the exchange with an RJ11 connection out to either a shared or switched hub.
"The other area is cable modems, but those people have a few more problems because the whole cable infrastructure needs to be changed. I would still expect to see a lot of activity there."