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Video-conferencing was supposed to change the world, reducing the need for physical travel and possibly even saving the planet. But it turned into a 1990s technology revolution that never happened.

Happily, however, a replacement is emerging in the form of an economical service everyone can use as the over-priced and under-utilised video-conferencing suite loses its lustre.

New products, capitalising on the popularity of on-demand software renting and the acceptance of Internet Protocol (IP) telecoms services, are bringing remote meetings to the masses via the desktop.

Many who have embraced this trend already have a traditional VC suite. One such organisation is Paris-based Air Liquide, which specialises in medical and industrial gases and employs 31,000 staff and has 130 subsidiaries in 65 countries.

Jean-Francois Petrignani manages the e-business department at Air Liquide and has been responsible for coaxing his colleagues into the domain of web-conferencing. “We still have a big VC suite on the top floor of the building. We went for WebEx so people could share things. The idea was not to replace the old system.”

WebEx, based in San José, promises to marry web-conferencing with on-demand e-mail management and data storage for SMEs – all on one account.

Mr Petrignani notes that users sometimes choose to add a webcam option to their PC screen but thinks that seeing another individual is not the real benefit of PC-based conferencing. “I use the webcam at the beginning of a meeting to say hello and then cut it until the end when I say goodbye.”

He presented the whole idea as an e-learning project, “a way to communicate and share information better than with the old VC system”.

First-time users of WebEx need assitance, says Mr Petrignani, but after the initial trial “nobody complains that it is complicated or boring”. In use since July 2002, the system has proved valuable for technical experts who need to confer over vast distances. Perhaps the most significant feature of this new generation video link is that the software is paid for by a monthly fee that allows up to 100 users at any one time. With traditional conferencing devices, each department is billed for time on the system, but with WebEx there is no internal charge. The economic attraction of IP and web-based systems is a huge agent for change.

Japan’s Tomen Cyber Systems, a software house based in Tokyo, sells an online collaboration tool to customers who want to expand the idea of the VC suite to embrace mobile employees and home-based staff.

Zen-Noh, a federation representing 3m private farms which work via co-operative units, took the Tomen Cyber product, recently launched in Europe as Visual Nexus, and integrated it with existing end points for Polycom group VC suites. Zen-Noh could connect 66 locations at a relatively low price. Large numbers of people can join the same video meeting.

By late 2005, market veteran Polycom found that 59 per cent of the systems it shipped were destined for an IP environment. As the desktop products gain ground on the original VC box, the concept of video-conferencing has evolved.

Masergy is a networking business catering largely for the corporate market. It has discovered that customers of its networking services are willing to pay a small premium to add extra bandwidth for video capacity to the data and voice IP facilities. For $1,500 a month Masergy can support 100 users on a wide area network. For an extra $500, they can use video facilities.

Masergy marketing director Tony Hurtado describes this as “just another application that can run across the network”. Customers such as New York casting agency Beth Melsky share this casual attitude to IP-based conferencing and use it to cut out air fares and conduct casting sessions across the US.

Israeli communications group Emblaze regards VC as an easy-to-install add-on employed simultaneously with other tools such as instant messaging. The aim is to replicate a normal meeting, where people pass notes around and share sight of documents.

Customers are discovering a broader discipline of dispersed teams sharing data with the occasional webcam interlude for social niceties. Best of all, business can be conducted very effectively without the jerky images and unsettling time lapses that made the original technology so unlovable.

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