Monday, October 23, 2006

Cisco's TelePresence - Big Time Videoconferencing

Remember Peter Gabriel's hit from So - Big Time? ..."My car is getting bigger... BIG TIME...My house is getting bigger...BIG TIME...My eyes are getting bigger...BIG TIME..."

Great song, great album. Well, that's what comes to mind when I think about Cisco's TelePresence news today. I was briefed about it under the usual embargo deal last week, but have been too busy to blog about it first thing today. By now it's old news to blog readers, so I'm not going to hash over the details. They've been covered to death by the mainstream media, and the uberbloggers like Andy and Om.

Cisco has spared no expense - a billion $$$ - building the ultimate state-of-the-art corporate videoconferencing experience. It's much more than a system, that's for sure - the idea is to create an experience so real, so life-like, and so life-size that it can only be...well.. big time.

It's a big time experience - better than HD - with a price to match. The business rationale is that the experience will be a viable substitute for travel, and that alone can justify the investment. Fair enough. And from what I've seen/heard/been told, it really is a great experience. Better than HD - twice the resolution of existing systems, and a totally new way to experience a virtual connection.

To give you a taste, Cisco managed to get a placement in the TV show Vanished, and here's a clip from on upcoming episode where you can see TelePresence in action.

With all that said, you have to really like Cisco to use this, as you need to be interfaced with their Call Manager IP PBX. The system is largely built in-house, making this essentially a proprietary platform that requires more bandwidth than most networks can support. So, there's a lot of front-end work involved before taking the plunge. In this regard, it's a bit Voice 1.0 - an expensive, closed system, but no doubt the applications will be very Voice 2.0 once it gains some traction. Cisco has also partnered with both AT&T and Verizon to ensure mainstream distribution, and this can become a great source of new revenues for the operators. That's a sure-fire way for the carriers to get closer to Cisco.

For now, TelePresence will appeal mainly to the Mercedes end of the enterprise spectrum, so it's far from being a mainstream product. I see it as a high end niche offering, but in time I'm sure it will be scaled down for the rest of us. It also remains to be seen just how effectively customers really use TelePresence. While everybody loves to watch TV, I'm not sure how many of us really want to be on TV, especially with such high quality optics. Sure, it's fine when you're in the boardroom - specially designed by Cisco, right down to the color palette - but maybe not so everywhere else. Anyhow, these are just growing pains, and while the videophone never took off, I'm sure we'll all get used to this sooner or later.

I want to briefly move off of Cisco and continue this theme in a broader context. Cisco may well end up owning the high end of this market with TelePresence, but the likes of Polycom, HP and Tandberg are in this game too, with lots of users spending a lot less. They may not be getting as rich an experience, and you just have to weigh out if it's worth paying the premium for Cisco compared to what you're getting today.

For example, earlier this month, Tandberg launched Movi, which strikes me as a pretty good approach for delivering an easy-to-use IP-based videoconferencing experience. It's PC-based, so it's not a big time Cisco-type experience, but it strikes me as being more aligned with how a lot of people relate to video now, and is no doubt much less expensive to buy. Here's a short demo - see for yourself. While Movi may not compete directly with TelePresence, Tandberg does have a technology partnership with Cisco, and it will be interesting to see how that evolves now.

Moving even further downstream, we have to bring SightSpeed into the conversation. I've blogged about this a few times already, and they are really coming into their own now. It's truly a Voice 2.0 offering, and being free, it's a long, long way from where TelePresence is going. However, the quality of experience is very good, and if PC-based videoconferencing works for you, I'd say this is big time.

As a footnote, I should add that SightSpeed's CEO, Peter Csathy has just starting blogging. So, welcome to the blogosphere, Peter, and if you want to track how this space is evolving, you should follow his blog.

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