It was just too risky to have a large gathering of people.
If you were one of the tens of millions of people around the world who watched a day in the life of Jack Bauer unfold in the television series, 24, then undoubtedly your highlight would have been similar to mine.
Day Six, which aired through 2007, was the first time that most people saw the concept of sophisticated videoconferencing. Cisco paid a ridiculous amount of money for their technology to be used as part of the plot when Noah Daniels and his staff communicated with Yuri Suvarov and the Russian staff using the newly released Cisco TelePresence suite. Product placement in movies and TV shows is so prevalent now that audiences are very sceptical of brand names in shows. Modern Family went as far as basing an entire show around the Dunphy family scrambling to buy their gadget-loving dad, Phil, a new iPad for his birthday. The first iPad wasn't released until three days after the show aired!
Thirteen years ago, though, Cisco was able to place their products in a hit TV series and the motivation was never questioned. What this did, along with many other similar product placements, was usher in a world where we believed that the general concept of videoconferencing was about to take over the world. Conference centres would close down; airlines would go broke; muffin-producing cafes would lose their best revenue source. The roads leading into major cities would be pleasant and free-flowing as employees sat in their homes and performed their work.
What a beautiful image. It is a shame it was only ever portrayed on marketing brochures and not in the real world.Until ... along came a pandemic that has directly impacted 125,865 lives with a death toll of 4615 so far.
Suddenly Mobile World Congress was cancelled. Then Adobe Summit. Next Facebook and Google cancelled conferences. IBM, Microsoft and TED all followed suit. It was just too risky to have a large gathering of people when coronavirus (COVID-19) posed too great a risk of infection. Large organisations are asking their staff to telecommute.
If any good can come from the heartbreaking loss of so many lives, it may be that we finally learn to embrace the concept of videoconferencing. That can bring significant benefits to society in terms of reduced congestion on our roads, reduced need for office space and reduced emissions with lower levels of travel required. There is still a way to go though. Barriers in the past have all been loosely related to quality. If you watched 24 and saw the quality of their conference calls, you would rush out and set up the equipment immediately - but, and I apologise for any shock I may cause here - but TV shows and movies aren't always portraying things with 100 per cent accuracy.
The opportunity is now there for the current organisations that provide videoconferencing services - such as Lifesize; Skype; Zoom; Cisco WebEx; GoToMeeting - and new competitors to come into the market to capitalise on the current set of circumstances. Telecommunication providers around the world can respond to the challenge with greater bandwidth availability and governments could even design initiatives and incentives to encourage activity in this space. It may be as simple as holding an ad-hoc FaceTime meeting with 32 people on an iPhone all the way through to dedicated rooms for your videoconferencing applications.
There is an argument that some of the best work done at a conference is around the bar at midnight so tell me if you would be happy to forgo your next physical conference and do a virtual conference at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mathew Dickerson is the founder of regional tech and communications company Axxis Technology.