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Can Skype really take the place of a face-to-face meeting?

Airfare is awfully expensive. Videoconferencing is cheap. But when business is on the line, is it really as good as being there in person?

It's the ultimate business hack: Instead of traveling to meet with a client, a design team, or anyone else you need to see face-to-face, you stay put and set up a video call instead. The technology is there--Skype, WebEx, etc.--and it can save you considerable time and money.

Indeed, think of what's involved in the typical business trip. Airfare. Hotel. Rental cars and/or taxis. Lunches. Dinners. And at least a day of your time, if not the better part of a week.

A videoconference, on the other hand, requires only a few minutes of setup, some equipment you may already have, and the time it takes for the actual meeting. Like I said: the ultimate business hack.

But how does this fly in the real world? Can Skype and similar services really take the place of a face-to-face sitdown at a conference table or business dinner?

I think it depends in part on the business. Cambridge, Mass.-based Plan B Salon, for example, offers 15-minute video consultations, giving customers a chance to learn about their options and ask questions before actually traveling to the salon.

In Lafayette, Ind., therapist Buck Black offers counseling sessions via Skype, thus allowing him to have a customer base that spans the country instead of just the city.

Now, those are fairly specialized businesses. Would that kind of videoconferencing work for your enterprise? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, I think one reason videoconferencing hasn't really caught on in boardrooms is hardware limitations: You can't comfortably gather a group of people around a laptop screen.

Enter TelyHD Business Edition, a dedicated Skype Webcam that plugs into an HDTV instead of a computer. That not only gives you a much larger screen for your meetings, but also affords much better video and audio than you get from the typical laptop Webcam.

The TelyHD works with your existing Skype account and supports multi-party calling (up to six locations simultaneously). There's also a companion Windows app that allows for screen and document sharing. Price tag: $499. Steep for a Webcam, yes, but less than I spent on airfare alone for my last business trip. Food for thought.

I've tested the consumer version of the TelyHD, and it works quite well. My immediate thought: This belongs in boardrooms! It'll be interesting to see if it catches on there, as it's definitely a more affordable solution than most business videoconferencing systems.

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