By Larry Armstrong Whether you remember The Jetsons from the playful TV series or the under-whelming 1990 movie, you probably recall the defining gizmo of that space-age cartoon: the videophone. Among other things, it allowed George Jetson's mean boss, Mr. Spacely, to keep tabs on his bumbling employee.
Perhaps because such futuristic portrayals stressed the intrusive nature of videophone calls, personal videophones never really took off. Corporate videoconferencing did, but it remained the tool of big companies willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to outfit conference rooms with cameras and big-screen TVs.
But thanks largely to the Internet, technology has finally caught up to the future, bringing videoconferencing to the rest of us. Chances are you already have most of the equipment you'll need: computers on every desk and a broadband network, typically cable or DSL, in the office. All you need to do is add cameras, microphones, and software to get desktop--if not conference room--video calls.
The old saw is that video can save your business a lot of money, mostly on travel expenses. That's still true. But if you have telecommuters on your staff or branch offices within your metro area, think about the hours your employees spend in traffic getting to weekly meetings or to workshops for training. Videoconferencing can help you stay in better touch with your customers, too. It can let you support them without dispatching a staffer to their location. In meetings with prospects, branch offices can dial in to an expert at headquarters. And that "branch" could be little more than a laptop computer with a Webcam perched atop the screen. In short, video is a way for everyone to be in two places at once. You can even interview job candidates remotely--and record a backup of the interview.
Don't worry about stage fright: You and your staff will get over it after the first couple of calls. But remember, a videoconference is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. Analyst Ira Weinstein at Wainhouse Research calls it "the perfect tool for the second meeting."
My suggestion is to start small. You can use free Instant Messenger software from the likes of AOL, Yahoo!, or MSN. You'll need to install a $30 to $100 Webcam--the more expensive ones can follow your face as you move--and some kind of microphone, preferably one attached to a headset. Or if you already have a voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) service such as Skype or Vonage, adding the same equipment probably will let you make free video calls for the monthly price of your current subscription. The downside is that video calls pretty much have to be prearranged.
A better bet, I think, is the Jetsons-like videophone. You buy it like a phone, it rings like a phone, and you answer it like a phone (though it plugs into your Internet connection). It has a built-in camera, a video screen, and its own processing power. It's not hooked to your computer, so it can't slow it down or crash it. D-Link's i2eye DVC-2000 is about $350; there's no subscription fee. VoIP providers Packet8 and Vonage sell videophones for less but charge a monthly fee of about $20. The 17-inch-tall Ojo from Motorola, at about $400 and $15 per month, is by far the most striking videophone. Mr. Spacely would love it.
Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek magazine