Mino – The UC Guy

Microsoft Unified Communications Blog

Microsoft Video Conferencing for Masses vs. Cisco Personal Telepresence

Posted by Mino on October 5, 2008

Cisco introduced its personal telepresence technology to the world and announced their entry into the “market for in-person virtual communications with new endpoints for the personal office and large group meetings”.

It is great to see Cisco endorsing and supporting video conferencing for the masses, something we have long felt was critical for organizations to see real benefits. But I think there are some serious limitations to the approach they have taken.

Budget and environmental impact are just a numbers game at the end of the day. There are 100’s of information workers for every executive in the world, and the impact of any technology you can give to executives will be amplified if you can do it for everyone. To see these benefits, technology must be affordable and accessible to the masses.

High end telepresence units, costing businesses $300,000 a piece before network upgrades and annual maintenance, are out of reach for all but a privileged few in the organization. If you had that kind of telepresence system for every 50 information workers in world (an expected ratio of workers to meeting rooms), it would cost more than the GDP of Spain! But while we at Microsoft were out announcing plans for a $300 high def camera that would revolutionize the accessibility of high quality video conferencing for everyone, Cisco is announcing a stripped down version of its flagship telepresence product selling for $34,000 per unit.

I just don’t believe you get mass adoption when the price point evokes the question “should I buy this or the helicopter?”. The market is limited to literally a few hundred units. Units like the Polycom HDX 4000, for example, have been around for years at a fraction of the price. Stephen Lawson at IDG sums it up well when he says “The System 500 is not the consumer device Cisco envisions, which former Chief Development Officer Charlie Giancarlo last year predicted could be sold within two to three years for about US $1,000.”

In contrast, Microsoft RoundTable sells for $3,000-$4,000 and has already built up over 700 customers and thousands of units sold after launching in October 2007. For the price of two personal telepresence units which would enable two executives to talk to one another, customers can buy 20+ RoundTables, enabling a much larger number of people in remote offices to communicate and collaborate more effectively, while reducing travel costs.

I also don’t get the argument about personal telepresence “shortening sales cycles” or to “improve productivity”? Most information workers spend a significant portion of their time collaborating using applications and yet telepresence systems don’t have an easy way to share applications with others. Sales people are often out visiting customers or on the road and more and more workers are working from home these days, but they can’t lug around a 400 pound telepresence unit with them to stay connected. While the world is moving towards integrated collaboration and mobility, personal telepresence seems to be focused on very expensive video conferencing as the one trick pony.

At Microsoft, we have really focused on building video conferencing into common applications and user experiences to make business processes more engaging. Integration into tools such as Live Meeting and Communicator, which are compatible with many third-party audio and video devices, make it easy to use video conferencing for face to face conversation, multimedia document collaboration or telework.

Finally, to make a communication tool useful and impactful, you have to make it interoperate with common legacy equipment. This includes colleagues on Tandberg or Polycom systems, which account for over 75% of the installed base of video conferencing today. Or federated customers and partners for example. The lack of interoperability makes the system  an isolated island in a customers’ broader environment. If you are going to go for a telepresence solution, you should consider systems that interop with broader installed base, such the Tandberg Experia or the Polycom RPX for example.

It’s great to see that Cisco has joined the tide of video conferencing for the masses but clearly there is a long way to go beforeGiancarlo’s vision is realized.

Moz Hussian

Director of Product Management

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