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It's All About the Experience - The VCI-Group 2011 Conference - A Recap by JD Vaughn

October 18, 2011 | Hogan Keyser
JD_Vaughn1.jpgOctober 17, 2011 by JD Vaughn via TeleSpan - Elliot was a bit under the weather,(and given his age who wouldn't be) so he asked (no "leveraged") me into leaving Bourbon Street early and writing an article about this annual event sponsored by the videoconferencing users group that just over two years ago was  called The Polycom Users Group. Or as many industry veterans remember; PUG. For those of us that go way, way, back; PUG was the acronym for a similar users group called Picturetel Users Group, but that is really ancient history and Elliot is now wondering is the pot calling the kettle black?

Tony Alonzo and Elliot asked if I would attend and participate in this second annual conference for what is now known as the VCI-Group, or Visual Communications Industry Group. The conference was in New Orleans this year and was attended by visual communications managers and support personnel from all over North America (with two attendees from France as well).

This group was formed to support users of all visual communications hardware, software and services not just Polycom, and that explains the booths manned by LifeSize, Cisco, Polycom,  and seventeen other resellers, integrators and providers of visual products and services. From the end user side, the attendees represented colleges and universities, state and local government, health care and large enterprise customers. These were/are end users that matter and can (and do) help shape the industry and guide manufacturers, integrators, resellers, and service organizations.

But the extraordinary value of this conference to users and vendors did not explain the growth of only 10% over last year. This may be one of the best kept secrets in the industry. In attendance were about 100 videoconferencing managers of large end users and almost 100 vendor representatives as well. If I were the decision maker and or controller for a large user of visual communications services, I would have carved out budget for my visual (video conferencing or collaboration) managers and or specialists for this conference. Why? Leverage.

I sat down with the President of the VCI-Group, Stephen Demmings, and the Vice President, and Conference Co-Chair, Indika McCampbell, and asked," What IS the value of the VCI-Group?"  "What are you really trying to accomplish?" And I added, "Why is it important, and why should it be important to users?" Their answer was unanimous and immediate, "leverage" they said. "We need to leverage the experience and knowledge of significant end users, so we can maximize our applications, benefits and resources while reducing our individual and collective risks. They both got animated at this point as they leaned in and said ...."When we build relationships and shared history with other users we can avoid problems and pitfalls by leveraging each other's experience and knowledge."  What they did not say we three understood. Given the chaos in the industry, and risks in this economy, users can use all the leverage they can get.

Day 1
The event began on Monday, the 10th of October and day one was dedicated to end user education. Classes included training and briefings on IM Client Integration, recording, streaming and content archiving, convergence of immersive and personal telepresence solutions, and evolution of traditional IP networks into medianets. One training class (led by Accenture) explored cross industry (education, health care, government and enterprise) experiences and was designed to facilitate and promote open discussion of shared issues, problems and solutions.

Day one was dedicated to education and training for managers and technical support staff. It was a good day, followed by a reception for all attendees. If you count the reception, it was a very good day.

Day 2
On day two vendors  joined the meeting, and had organized and set up an exhibit hall that included Applied Global Technologies, AVI-SPL, Blue Jeans Network, BT Conferencing, Chief,  Cisco, Crestron, Direct Packet Research, GlobalMed, Hewlett Packard ,IOCOM, IVCI, Lifesize, Masergy, myVRM, Polycom, Providea Conferencing, Renovo Software, Revolabs and Vcopious.  

Most industry events, like this one, need the important vendors to help sponsor them. Consequently, most industry trade events allow the key vendors to deliver commercials disguised as "market updates" or keynote speeches. This second annual VCI-Group event was no different.  However, on balance, these "updates" or keynote speeches were informative, well delivered and timely. They added value.
VCI_Group_conference_3_stefan_karapetkov.jpgStefan Karapetkov

Day two was kicked off with a keynote speech by Stefan Karapetkov, Director of Emerging Technologies for Polycom. Stefan delivered an interesting message even if a bit self-serving. On balance, it was a good opening act. He told us about Polycom's makeover as a software company, and asked us all to join together as an industry to help define and execute on Unified Communications. What many of us heard (even though this is NOT what he said) was...." Band together and help us compete with Cisco". One of his slides showed IBM, Microsoft, HP, Juniper, Broadsoft, Avaya, Siemens, and McAfee under the Polycom banner and leadership leading that fight.
After the keynote speech and a brief welcome by the President, a schedule of breakout sessions began. These included sessions about connecting any to any networks and end points, interoperability, mobility, collaboration tools, cloud offerings and solutions, and discussions about the impact of free (Skype) collaboration services. These sessions were interrupted by a general assembly meeting during which we listened as Tony Alonzo grilled a panel of industry experts that included all three keynote speakers along with Michael Brandifino of AVI-SPL and Tim Rupert of BT Conferencing, I was able to attend most of the sessions on day one, along with the Industry Experts panel.  Here are some of the "take aways" I captured from these sessions and the experts panel on day one:

  • Interoperability (most) issues have been solved.  Blue Jeans Networks drew a large crowd with this message. And the message was clear; interoperability issues have been solved by service providers, (AVI-SPL, BT, Providea, etc.) entrepreneurs, and new companies. (And yes there are more leading edge providers other than Blue Jeans Networks; Vidtel and Connexus to name but two). These solutions will (over time) become more seamless and pervasive, but the roadblocks have been overcome.
  • Key market issues that collaboration (videoconferencing) managers must explore include (1) Mobility, (2) Social Media as Commerce (3) Pervasive video -by 2013 80-90% of all network traffic will be or will include video and (4) Integration of cloud computing.  Telepresence, HD and immersive discussions were tertiary topics but it was understood that these options and elements are key pieces of the landscape of user expectations.
  • Visual communications and collaboration are key elements of Unified Communications initiative(s) even though there are still many broad interpretations of Unified Communications.
This was a very good day. And at the end of the day, attendees were treated to a night of New Orleans Jazz, refreshments, and very good New Orleans food. If you include learning, meeting new colleagues, and dinner with music, this was a very, very good day.

Day 3

VCI_Group_conference_larry_satterfield_cisco.jpgLarry Satterfield - Cisco

Day three began with a morning keynote speech by Cisco Vice President of Collaboration, Larry Satterfield. He tried to take the commercials out of his presentation, but when you are the network (or the company that provides the hardware for those that build the networks) it is hard not to feel the commercial coming at you. However, Larry did a good job of getting us "re-focused" one more time on the four key elements. He advised the audience to consider and be prepared to respond to the visual communications market demands they were experiencing: (1) Mobility, (more tablets and smartphones than PCs being sold) (2) Social Media as Commerce (enterprises must leverage this movement) (3) Demand for Pervasive video (anywhere, everywhere, all devices) and (4) Cloud computing. And he reminded us that users were expecting immersive visual experiences.
In order to be fair to the "Big three", (whatever happened to Radvision?), Lifesize Vice President of Product Marketing, Michael Hambrecht, also delivered an after lunch keynote speech,  and with one exception, paralleled the keynote messages of Polycom and Cisco. His address included a piece about the importance of integrated video streaming. (Perhaps because it is a key differentiator for Lifesize?) He also talked about the acquisition of Mirial as their response to the demands of the market for mobility solutions.

Before and after this second keynote speech, I once again dove into a series of sessions delivered by videoconferencing managers and vendors. The sessions included talks about mobility, IPv6, unique and specific usage cases, how to support un-immersed users in immersive video calls, digital media, and telemedicine. And once again the key sessions focused on mobility, social media, pervasive video and leveraging the cloud.
During the Analyst Forum led by Oregon State's Derek Abrams we faced (I sat on the panel with Melanie Turek of Frost and Sullivan and Andrew Davis of Wainhouse Research) questions about what to do about consumer products (iPads, Facebook and related consumer products) making their way into our secure controlled network environments. There was some intensity around this subject but we all agreed it was an issue that needs focus, and a flexible response. Some reminded us that the young labor force would demand these "consumer" tools. Others reminded us that they were not "consumer" tools at all, simply tools to be used by highly productive workers. Still other visual communications managers held tightly to the control they believe they need to maintain security and QOS. It is not an easy discussion, and we all agreed that thoughtful and creative strategies and policies are required.

Some take aways from day 2 sessions and speeches:
  • End user organizations may deploy, on their own timeline, new leading edge visual collaboration and Unified Communications solutions. However, given the potential competitive advantages, productivity gains and demands of a young digital savvy workforce, we may all need to drive our corporate cultures to earlier adoption. And we may need the help of our vendors and colleagues to make this happen.
  • Many users have migrated from travel offsets as the primary or single cost justification for investing in visual communications and are now considering and using more sweeping business justifications like; time to market, quality and sales effectiveness.
  • Even if we do not use "the cloud", having it available gives us flexibility and choices without capital investment. Given the demands for interoperability between diverse end points, networks, standards and architecture, "the cloud" via service providers may provide the solutions demanded by our users.
  • There are 5 billion mobile devices today, in 2020 there will be 20 billion and they will all be video enabled.
  • Users expect high definition and immersive video experiences because they are accustomed to high definition and immersive visual experiences.
  • Chaos and/or change, depending on your view, are part and parcel of the visual communications industry and it has been this way for over 25 years. We need to simply expect change as the industry and scope continues to expand.

Day three wrapped up with more breakout sessions on mobility, unified communications, cloud solutions, and interoperability. Day three was very good day, and I heard users, vendors and staff alike talking about how valuable this event was for them.

Day 4

The event is over, and I am on the plane an hour and 55 minutes from landing at LAX. I will need to send this article to Elliot as soon as I land so he can include it in this week's TeleSpan. So now is probably the time to consolidate my thoughts, impressions and opinions about the Second Annual VCI-Group Conference.

Overall it was a good to very good event. It is an idea that needs to be nurtured and grown; end users interacting with vendors (manufacturers, resellers, integrators, service providers) and each other, helping each other shape visual communications products and solutions based on their needs.  What a concept. (And we imagined new products and solutions could only come from engineers sitting in conference rooms with other engineers saying,"wouldn't it be neat if?"

Whenever vendors have an opportunity to engage end users to help shape products and services, we all win, especially when end users are willing to vote with purchase orders.

I heard and saw vendors working with end users; working through real applications and use cases day after day.  And I saw and heard end users telling other end users about vendor solutions they learned about at the event.  Everywhere I looked I saw leverage.

It was a very good three days. I recommend it for everyone in the industry. Sign up for next year's session and come prepared to help shape the products, services and companies that shape our industry.

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