Video Promises To Liven Up E-Mail Messages

Little by little, the traditional barriers that have hindered video transmissions over the Internet are beginning to fall. Inexpensive, quality Web cameras and microphones have been integrated into desktop systems, laptops, and even handheld devices; LAN and WAN bandwidth has increased so networks can support video transmissions; and vendors developed a wide variety of techniques to ensure that video transmissions receive the bandwidth necessary so video exchanges are crisp and clear rather than garbled.

As a result, companies are looking for ways to integrate video into a wide array of applications, including e-mail instant messages. “Companies want to take advantage of the enhanced communications that video offers,” said David Via, a research analyst at market research firm Ferris Research Inc.

To date, the vast majority of e-mail message are in a text-only format. While e-mail has helped companies improve the information flow, it can be an impersonal form of communication. When using e-mail and instant messaging, individuals may forge business relationships and complete deals not only without ever seeing each other, but also without ever even hearing each other speak.

Internal Improvements

With text communications, it can be difficult on occasion for the recipient to put information into context. Apart from text formatting (bold print, italics, colors) and graphical items like “smileys,” e-mail does not offer users many ways to convey the various nuances found with face-to-face communication, such as inflection, tone, and facial expressions. Adding video to e-mail messages helps companies bridge that gap.

Consequently, video has the potential to improve a number of internal information exchanges. Many companies already use video for items like the transmission of important messages from the company president, financial analyst briefings, and press conferences. The medium is also gaining popularity in training, classroom lectures, and court depositions and proceedings.

Focus groups, where current or potential customers meet to provide feedback on a current or a new product, are an important part of the market research process. Typically, a company employee is assigned to note anything interesting the customers say during the one to two hour demonstration. This can be time-consuming work and the employee can miss details, such as people’s faces, gestures, tone, and the exact wording used in their opinions. Video offers companies a means to circulate all, or part of these important exchanges, without burdening someone with the notetaking task.

Organizations can also use video e-mail to strengthen external communications. A company service representative can send a customer a video clip that can outline how to troubleshoot a device, for example. Pictures can be more effective than text when firms are trying to entice consumers to buy products: A real estate agent could send a video clip of a new home along in a message to a perspective buyer. Customers can even take their own videos of a potential home and send it to friends and family for their input.

Notes on Notes

Because of the potential benefits, vendors have begun to integrate video into their e-mail systems. Microsoft Corp. has enhanced its Outlook e-mail system so it works with Microsoft Media Player, and Lotus Development Corp. has added OneNote to its Notes e-mail system. These products not only enable users to integrate video into e-mail messages, but they also include a notes features so users can mark certain portions of a video exchange with text messages, say a customer talking about pricing, and find desired snippets more easily.

Meanwhile, while video is gaining support, it still faces a number of hurdles before it will be widely used in mail systems. The problems start with human factors: For instance, not everyone wants to be filmed, so certain individuals may not want to be part of a video presentation. Since most video e-mails will be pre-recorded, camera-shy participants will have the ability to edit their messages until they are satisfied with the contents.

Users of video e-mail need to be careful and make sure that their messages are delivered appropriately. More thought and effort will need to be put into the preparation of a video e-mail than composing a simple textual one.

A Few Missing Pieces

There are still technical issues as well. “Companies need tools to make it simple to integrate video into e-mail messages,” Ferris Research’s Via told TechNewsWorld. Firms such as Digital Lava (with Video Mail Studio), Instant Video, MyVideoTalk.Net, and VIDItalk Corp. have been building such products.

Moreover, even with the recent influx of Web cameras and microphones in user systems, these technologies are still not yet ubiquitous. “There has only been slow progress outfitting end user devices so they include the needed hardware and software needed to support applications like desktop video conferencing,” noted Ira Weinstein, a senior analyst with market research firm Wainhouse Research.

While the uptick in broadband services has pushed more bandwidth to end users, a sudden video-services increase could pose problems for corporate and consumer networks. This could be fixed with simple formatting efficiences, one analyst said.

“Rather than attaching or integrating video clips into individual messages, I expect users to include a button or a link in a message, so recipients can go to a Web site and download desired video clips,” said Peter O’Kelly, a senior analyst with the Burton Group.

The new video capabilities will, however, require a fair amount of additional storage. A one-minute video clip requires about 1 MB of storage. If users start working with a number of them, they could overrun corporate servers and possibly even users’ desktop devices.

Despite the interpersonal and technical issues, use of video in e-mail messages is expected to increase in the coming months. “Along with instant messaging, video is one area where companies are spending a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to best take advantage of the recent technical advances,” O’Kelly said.

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