Why video chat has an education problem

Misconceptions over issues such as price and complexity have kept video chat from taking off, say Paltalk.com's Jason Katz.

Commentary - As a technology that has been around since the early 1990’s, why hasn’t video chat become as ubiquitous as e-mail? The technological issues that plagued video chat in its earlier years are no longer relevant with the introduction of greater bandwidth speeds. Additionally, the inherent benefits are immediately felt by those who use it as a tool to work and communicate on a regular basis, both in personal and business use.

While some have embraced video chat as a part of their day-to-day activities, a majority of Americans are still reluctant to use video chat in any meaningful way. It’s clear that if video chat is to gain ground and become more prevalent, it has to educate the public and overcome the myths that plague it.

Video chat’s biggest obstacle
A Harris Interactive survey of online adults conducted in June 2010 showed that 79 percent of those surveyed were not aware of free video chat options.

But price wasn’t the only issue – 1-in-5 surveyed (19 percent) would video chat more often if they used a service that their contacts didn’t find difficult to use. Roughly the same number (18 percent) would video chat more often if their contacts were already on the same network. Finally, 26 percent of those surveyed said that knowing the service was easy to use would prompt them to video chat more often.

The take away from this survey is that the barriers for wide acceptance of video chat are its price, complexity and availability. Under normal circumstances, these barriers would be immediately considered by video chat providers and work-arounds and solutions would be implemented. However, one thing is keeping the industry from jumping into action: the technology and services that are currently on the market already circumvent these barriers. Clearly, the biggest issue facing video chat’s effectiveness is not a matter of making greater strides in the advancement of technology, it’s educating the public on what is available.

Dispelling video chat’s biggest misconceptions
Price: While it’s perceived that a video chat solution is expensive, the reality is that it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many companies have free video conferencing for limited numbers of people. For example, Google Talk supports 2 way video conferencing , Skype supports 5 way video conferencing, and Paltalk supports a video conference with up 10 people for free. IChat also supports multiperson video chat but only among Mac users. In addition, many video chat services utilize a freemium model, which means that a core part of its service is free to download and use, while some of its more advanced services are behind a paywall. (For instance, on some services, you can chat one-on-one for free, but adding additional parties will cost more.)

Complexity: Just like bandwidth, video chat’s user interface has come a long way since the 1990’s. Most services only require a user to plug a web cam into a USB port and then download the service from the Internet. Once the software is installed, the UI is not any more difficult than using IM or Google Talk. In fact, there are some services on the market that only need one person to download the software. From there, the user can create a unique URL and then share it with his or her network, at which point video chat is no more complex than clicking a link. The technology behind video chat has become so simple to use that it has been easily integrated into a powerful sales tool for businesses. Sales teams have used video chat for years to both grow their team internally and expand their sales reach. As the technology and capabilities grow, video chat becomes a more effective sales tool.

Availability: Just like Twitter or Facebook, video chat is only effective when you have a sizable network of contacts. However, unlike some of the more popular social network services, video chat has developed a number of solutions to build your network. In addition to building a custom URL as outlined above, there are some services that will use your work contacts to populate a virtual contact list, automatically building each contact a profile and sending them a link to the service. With powerful technology behind it, the industry is taking steps to become seamlessly integrated into the lives of both current and potential users. Video chat is working with existing social networks to become the de facto chat portal or partnering with businesses and brands to create shared communities.

The truth is that video chat is nowhere near as complicated or as time consuming as currently perceived by consumers. The technology offered by some of the leading video chat providers (Skype, Google Talk, Paltalk) can immediately benefit businesses by saving time and money. Once video chat solves its education problem, it’s conceivable that the medium will be as ubiquitous as e-mail.

biography
Jason Katz is the founder and CEO of Paltalk.com and oversees the strategic direction of Paltalk as well as manages the company’s system architecture. He is an authority on instant messaging as well as Web-based voice and video.