A conference room for the future

Analyst opinion

In some ways, the recent completion of Plantronics’ $2 billion purchase of Polycom was more surprising for the amount paid than the fact that this is basically an audio headset supplier taking over a conferencing technology veteran. Given the way that videoconferencing has evolved to the cloud, Polycom has been much in need of a realignment, to put it politely!

It’s a symptom of a wider issue in conferencing tech. We’ve all been there: the meeting where the presenter can’t get the screen to work and has to call in tech support. Or the videoconference where the first 10 minutes are taken up with people rebooting their PCs then dialling in anyway, because they can’t get voice-over-IP working properly.

Similar things used to happen in other areas of technology – having to re-send documents because the recipient couldn’t read the original format, say, or being unable to work on a borrowed PC because it didn’t have the right set of apps installed. But that was more than a decade ago, and I’d argue we fixed most of those through a combination of standardisation, a shift to the cloud, and arching over it all, the process that we rather grandly call digital transformation.

Transforming the meeting room

So what will it take to similarly transform the meeting room, and what will the result look like? Fortunately, in some organisations it has already happened, so we have a good idea of the latter – and crucially, it provides us with a very useful analogue or parallel in something that most of us have with us most of the time.

That’s the smartphone. Think about it – today’s smartphone is pocket PC, digital camera, satnav, videophone and more, all rolled into one. And it’s not just used by ‘young millennials and digital natives’. Many others, from all generations, are now quite happy swapping photos or videocalling with distant friends and family, for example.

Like the smartphone, the ‘smartroom’ is multifunctional – it’s a meeting room, a conferencing hub, a stage for presentations, a training room, and a studio for video streaming. It can even just be a quiet place to make and take one-to-one video and audio calls. More importantly, it’s all driven from a single easy-to-use interface, and ideally everything works through the same set of screens and controls.

Videoconferencing has moved to the cloud

This is where some of the older vendors lost ground to the cloud-based upstarts – here I’m thinking not so much of the desktop-focused apps, but the multipurpose likes of BlueJeans, LifeSize, StarLeaf and Zoom. Sure, the established names are trying to catch up – Polycom is in the process of integrating its conferencing gear with Microsoft’s Teams UI, for instance – but it’s not clear to me how far this will take them beyond just videoconferencing.

That’s important, because while collaboration strategies and smartrooms typically start with videoconferencing, they have to go further – considerably further – if you want real value from them.

One way to make the smartroom super-easy to use could be AI-guided and voice-driven smart setup schemes, of course. When we can ask Cortana to create a conference call, Siri to set up for streaming video, or Alexa to activate the presentation stage, then maybe we really will have the conference room of the future.

Originally published on Freeform Dynamics’ Computer Weekly Blog – Write Side Up

Bryan Betts is sadly no longer with us. He worked as an analyst at Freeform Dynamics between July 2016 and February 2024, when he tragically passed away following an unexpected illness. We are proud to continue to host Bryan’s work as a tribute to his great contribution to the IT industry.