Smartphones and tablets continue to nab market share from more traditional computing technologies, such as netbooks, as they are integrated into the enterprise arena, says Alain Schram, chief operating officer at Kathea. 
Apple’s iPad and tablets featuring Android-enabled operating systems, for example, have given rise to a new class of mobility that extends productivity and telepresence beyond the office.
Today’s tablets feature advanced collaborative applications, larger processor capacities, bigger, higher definition screens and cameras, improved audio equipment, as well as faster, more resilient wireless mobile network connectivity.
While video mobile collaboration is yet to take hold in South Africa, there is definitely a shift in organisations’ mindsets where they now turn to us to create in-house mobile applications for their mobile workforce. These applications include a blend of audio, teleconferencing and online collaboration tools such as email and document sharing.
Industry-specific products and services
One example of this is the use of telepresence in the short term insurance industry. Insurance organisations are now enabling assessors to view damages of customer vehicles or property via video conferencing to speed up claim processing.
These companies deploy, for example, casual employees to visit customers at their locations and provide video and photographic evidence of the damaged items, which is fed back directly to the assessor.
Similarly, the real estate industry is also benefiting from video conferencing technology, allowing clients to view homes via video phone or tablet in realtime, before they decide to go to the physical locale. However, industries that stand to benefit the most from mission-critical telepresence solutions are the education and healthcare sectors.
With the constant pressure to increase the quality of patient care and the desire to provide new services, while at the same time controlling costs, healthcare providers are leveraging the power of video networks to link patients, specialists, and clinicians, thus extending the reach of healthcare.
Live digital video and high-speed network connections enable physicians to evaluate and diagnose illnesses in realtime, without the need for either the patient or physician to travel.
This could revolutionise healthcare in South Africa, particularly in rural areas where medical specialists are in short supply. Additionally, medical professionals also have the convenience of being able to obtain Continuing Medical Education (CME), access certification programs, and train through video conferencing or pre-recorded classroom sessions, something that was never possible before.
Education is another area where telepresence can effectively address the skills shortage challenges in South Africa. Education today faces major changes as primary, secondary, and tertiary educators try to address global opportunities, challenges, and needs while putting it in the local context.
However, outside of the metropolitan areas, South Africa is still very rural and students in smaller communities do not have access to the same learning activities that are available to kids in more affluent urban areas.
By deploying video systems in the classrooms, provinces can pool their resources and deliver innovative and enriching content to students. While budget cuts have left rural schools with very basic offerings, distance learning can provide advanced and elective classes.
Moving towards e-government
While South Africa has an e-government plan and an ICT strategy in place today, despite the boom in the use of personal computers, the Internet and mobile device use at home, office, and around the world, governments have yet to solve the issues related to poor service delivery and inter-departmental collaboration.
This issue is amplified by the fact that many government departments predominantly operate in silos and have issues with regard to sharing information and knowledge in realtime, leading to slower decision making and resource co-ordination in times of crisis.
Governments can address many of these challenges provided they integrate video as a core application in their unified communications strategy, which involves the convergence of data, voice, applications, services, and visual communications into a single continuum or network.
Technologies such as immersive telepresence, which is visual communications that offer a true-to-life virtual meeting experience, can offer the same level of interactivity and efficiency as that of face-to-face communication without the added time and expenses incurred by travelling to a central location.
High cost of doing business
While the technology infrastructure is all in place in South Africa, the cost of wireless bandwidth/data bundles, is still very prohibitive compared to that of other countries.
South Africa’s mobile networks are out pricing the telepresence market. It prohibits the market from being economically competitive. That said, in certain niche industries we have seen that companies are more than prepared to absorb the cost because of the productivity savings they incur.
One of the areas in which telepresence vendors are innovating is in compressing data to get more information on a finite amount of bandwidth. Polycom, for one, has been able to reduce the collaboration bandwidth by half. Even with service providers expanding their network offerings, this kind of traffic reduction will be crucial as data use continues to grow exponentially.
Looking to the future of telepresence, devices such as tablets will be part of the wider mix of products and components in the telepresence network. Tablets will potentially have a role in communicating to each other, but it will be a blended experience, being able to use a tablet while at a remote location and interfacing with colleagues using a room-based system.