Kinko's announced Monday that it replaced PictureTel's video-conferencing equipment with Vtel's systems in 150 of its locations across North America.
But things are not always as they seem. Let's take a couple of minutes while I tell you about one of the worst businesses I know and about a new book of mine that will deal in part with that business. First, an update on the Kinko's deal, then the book -- and why what looks like a great coup may in the end be essentially meaningless.
You've probably seen Kinko's ads that offer video-conferencing room rentals at many of its sites. You no longer have to spring for your own video-conferencing setup, the pitch goes, nor climb on yet another airplane. Not every Kinko's offers video conferencing, but many of its 900-plus stores do. In larger markets, more than one Kinko's store in an area will offer the service.
So if you're a small-business person with a client across the country who wants to drag you into a video conference, you can look and sound as if you're right up there playing with the big boys just by booking some time down at the nearest Kinko's.
Kinko's had launched the service with a big promo campaign and installed PictureTel's equipment at 150 of its larger locations. Made sense: PictureTel is the industry leader, with the closest thing to a brand name in video conferencing.
But video conferencing has turned out to be a
business for suppliers. They are caught between market imperatives to drive "room-conferencing" quality up and prices down, while trashing the bottom of their own product lines by making "desktop video conferencing" better, cheaper and standards-based, so I can conference in from my lonely PC to a call originating in your corporate video-conference center.
Though PictureTel is still a medium-sized company with about $400 million in annual revenue, that's lately been a profitless business, producing a $55 million loss in the most recent fiscal year, ended in December. The stock briefly traded at little over a split-adjusted 40 three years ago but has spent most of the time since then wallowing around under 10. Over the past year, PictureTel is down by about half, to a recent close at 8 5/16.
Vtel has followed pretty much the same trajectory, a smaller victim of the same industry dynamics. Its stock price touched 25 briefly in late 1995, but it has been stuck lately in
sub-$5 hell, also about a 50% drop.
Neither company has much of an institutional following. I was able to count about 100 institutional holders of PictureTel and just 30 of Vtel.
So what did Vtel do to push PictureTel out the door at Kinko's?
It offered better quality and, I believe, a much better deal. The PictureTel system in use at Kinko's (and at many other sites) has poor latency, with new incoming pictures coming in very slowly. That contributes substantially to the perceived lack of quality many of us associate with video conferencing in general. The Vtel systems provide more frames per second, producing something much more lifelike onscreen -- if still not nearly real-time -- and a long way from, say, the evening news on television.
So competition is alive and maybe still well in the video-conferencing business -- even if the three-strikes-and-you're-out combination of falling prices, user apathy and the recent appearance of new international competitors, such as
, should give pause to Vtel and PictureTel holders.
But let me tell you about a much worse problem all these video-conferencing vendors face, one that ought to give those companies and investors heartburn.
I'm just wrapping up a book, due out this fall, called
The End of Synchronicity
(a title adapted, with some hubris, from Francis Fukuyama's brilliant
The End of History
). The book traces the effects on our society from our move, beginning two decades ago, from an essentially synchronous world -- doing virtually everything we do that involves others in "real time" -- to today's time-shifted existence.
The book posits that our successful experience with email, voice mail and VCRs -- nonsynchronous tools that allow us to rearrange our increasingly asynchronous lives, if you will, to better suit our schedules and preferences -- has changed both our behavior and our expectations. And it argues that our general pleasure with the ease of functioning nonsynchronously will carry over to many other areas.
When was the last time you raced home after a party to catch a late movie? You just taped it, eh? Or called someone a dozen times in an hour because he or she didn't pick up? Or just left a voice-mail message, didn't you -- or possibly sent a text pager message. When's the last time you sent (
) a telegram instead of an email? Ridiculous, I know: You sent an email.
Consider that your experience over 20 years of subtly learning to use "asychronisms" has changed your life, generally if by no means universally, for the better.
With some obvious exceptions, mainly based on intense and usually pleasurable face-to-face encounters, the general assumption that we will act synchronously is, I believe, dead.
Except for sex, video conferencing is about the most synchronous activity I know. You and the others on the call have got to be in the Right Place at the Right Time. Video-conferenced meetings are, in my considerable experience with them, hodgepodges, even longer and more tedious than audio-only telephone conference calls and face-to-face meetings, as the meeting coordinators at each end try endlessly to update and bring context to the ephemeral group at the other end or ends. And video-conference participants report relatively low levels of satisfaction with the overall experience.
(Yes, you can do some time-shifting here, by using store-and-forward "video mail," but that
destroys the experience.)
A common remark upon exiting a video conference: "Whew, that was exhausting."
So while video-conferencing-equipment vendors worry about H-dot-something standards for interoperability, the wide availability of high-speed phone lines for connections (the effective frame rate depends powerfully on the bandwidth available to the system) and falling prices, I think they ought to be worrying about how they're going to stay in business when they're bucking one of the most fundamental societal shifts of my adult life.
Put another way, if you were excited, as a present or prospective Vtel (or PictureTel) shareholder, by the Kinko's deal, think twice before jumping. What has long been a lousy business -- but always one, we've been assured, that's about to turn the corner -- looks to a questionable future in a population that has largely turned its back on such fundamentally synchronous experiences.
The End of Synchronicity
isn't about investing per se, it may contain many ideas that will help savvy investors steer away from investments geared to the synchronous world of the past and toward investments aligned with our newly and permanently nonsynchronous future.
I'll keep you posted on the book's progress and on the continuing decline of the video-conferencing business.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, although positions can change at any time. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at