Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"TelePresence" ... and Video Conferencing for the Rest of Us

Cisco's "telepresence" initiative is being portrayed by much of the conventional press as something it most certainly is not -- i.e., the introduction of high quality video conferencing. Video conferencing of varying quality, of course, has been big business for several years both in the SMB/enterprise and consumer markets ... albeit perhaps quietly. I previously reported some of the numbers here.

What IS surprising about Cisco's highly publicized initiative? Well, the price tag for one. At $79,000 to $299,000 a pop (and that is just for one end point), only a small fraction of potential users (i.e., only the largest enterprises and governments) can even consider Cisco's option. That is precisely Cisco's target market.

What else? As reported by the Wall Street Journal, only 10-15% of Cisco's customers have the necessary communication infrastructure in place now for its telepresence systems. Of course, this means that the price tag really isn't $299,000 after all -- it is significantly north of that. Telepresence, in effect, becomes a trojan horse (dare I say, "loss leader"?) for all of Cisco's other offerings.

Next, while Cisco's system undoubtedly is impressive when paid for and up and running (and assuming you have found someone else to talk to with a second system), it lacks the flexibility of other offerings that complete the picture for even the highest end enterprise and government user. You simply cannot take it with you. And, in this day and age of increased mobility and decentralization in the workplace, portability of collaboration solutions is increasingly mission critical.

So-called "desktop" video-conferencing solutions -- which are increasingly moving off the desktop (see my recent posts in this regard) -- solve all of these issues impressively for the vast majority of both consumer and business use cases. And, even in the very high end enterprise and government markets that Cisco is targeting, desktop video-conferencing solutions can uniquely help to "extend the enterprise" and, hence, increase effective collaboration, productivity, and overall "connectivity" among employees.

First, the quality of "desktop" video-conferencing solutions most certainly can be high-end. It just so happens that SightSpeed is full 30 frames per second great quality video with no latency, and perfect sync of video and voice. It is widely recognized (PC Magazine, PC World, etc.) as being the gold standard in so-called desktop video calling and conferencing. (I apologize for the seeming blatant marketing plug here, but it is important to recognize the possibilities in the context of this discussion which is precisely in my company's general "space.")

Second, "desktop" video-conferencing solutions require NO special infrastructure. SightSpeed, for example, works great in normal (and varying) broadband environments. Third, "desktop" video-conferencing solutions are flexible and fully portable -- users only need web cams that increasingly are being integrated directly into the hardware. This means that users can have great quality video conferences anytime, anywhere (T-Mobile hotspots at Starbucks, anyone?) They can take their "systems" with them. This is what I mean by "extending the enterprise," something uniquely empowering about desktop video-conferencing solutions. Now, traveling and home officed/decentralized workers can stay "connected" with their colleagues at all times -- i.e., the critical "human" and personal element that video can uniquely provide."

Finally, so-called "desktop" video conferencing solutions are just a little bit cheaper than Cisco's new systems -- about $298,950 cheaper to be precise. SightSpeed's full functionality (which gives unlimited multi-party video conferencing) is priced at less than $50 per year (SightSpeed also offers a free version with virtually all of its functionality intact).

Desktop video-conferencing solutions, of course, target an entirely different enterprise market segment than that targeted by Cisco. But, as noted above, even the highest end Cisco enterprise customer can benefit by the unique flexibility and power of desktop video conferencing solutions.
At the end of the day, Cisco's telepresence news is most notable for underscoring a point that is nothing new to those who have followed video-conferencing for some time -- i.e., that video conferencing uniquely solves important needs for both enterprise and consumer users. Video conferencing of all kind empowers the enterprise user by offering a more efficient, and frequently, equally effective way to connect and collaborate with others. And, of course, when it works as it should, it reduces the need for (and hassle of) travel, which is especially meaningful in this post 9/11 world.