Cisco Delivers Realistic Videoconferencing, but Will it Find Buyers?

Cisco today announced the Cisco TelePresence, a high-quality, high-end, big-ticket videoconferencing system that the company hopes will find favor with multinational enterprise customers.

The Cisco TelePresence 1000 is designed for small-group meetings and one-on-one conversations, while the Cisco TelePresence 3000 is intended for meetings of up to 12 people.

In a detailed article describing the system, LightReading provides the following description of the TelePresence 3000:

TelePresence consists of three video screens (60-inch plasma, 1080 pixels), each meant to display two people (for a total of 12 — six on either end of the link). The TelePresence room has a table set in a semicircular arc, so that when both ends of the connection are live, users see the illusion of one round table, the shape of an open hoop. Speakers on the screens are life-sized for the distance involved — that is, they’re made to look as if they really are sitting across this table.

The $299,000 list price includes the video screens, the speakers, the microphones, and the table (cut to just the right arc to pull off the circle illusion).

TelePresence has to occupy a dedicated room with wall colors chosen from a palette determined by Cisco. A third-party inspector will judge whether the room’s lighting and acoustics make the grade.

Carriers are partnering with Cisco to bring the solution to market, and for obvious reasons. Said Randy Harrell, a director of product marketing at Cisco:

We have carrier partners who are very interested. It looks billable. It requires QOS.

By most accounts, the videoconferencing systems deliver exceptional verisimilitude. For that price, though, buyers have a right to expect life-like results.

Cisco apparently spent two years developing the system internally, eschewing the option of buying its way into the market through an acquisition. Apparently, Cisco didn’t feel external alternatives offered sufficient quality, and it wanted to deliver an unprecedented solution.

While the quest for engineering excellence might be laudable, Cisco also seems to have designed the videoconferencing system as much to lock in the customer with proprietary technological hooks. Here’s a quote from the LightReading article that illustrates the closed nature of the system:

TelePresence has to occupy a dedicated room with wall colors chosen from a palette determined by Cisco. A third-party inspector will judge whether the room’s lighting and acoustics make the grade.

In other words, no fair showing off the good china in a trashy, undusted closet.

The system has to run with a Cisco PBX and Cisco CallManager software, as TelePresence is "very tightly integrated" with CallManager, Harrell says. The chances of expanding TelePresence to work with other PBXs is "not very likely," he adds.

Will enterprise customers buy what Cisco is selling?

I don’t think enough of them will go along with the program to produce the $1 billion in revenue that Cisco wants from videoconferencing in the next five to seven years. TelePresence is too closed, too unwieldy, too specialized, and too expensive for the vast majority of enterprises. Some companies might be tempted to put one between their North American and European headquarters, but the price and the proprietary lock in will dissuade most buyers from taking the plunge.

Then, there’s the question of whether videoconferencing will ever become as popular as vendors such as Cisco are hoping. I can envision videoconferencing — at the right quality and a compelling price point — becoming a successful vehicle for some intracompany meetings spanning geographic jurisdictions, but I wonder — as does Ken Camp — about its efficacy as a potential replacement for face-to-face business meetings.

Well, Ken does more than wonder about it. He is outright dismissive of Cisco’s seemingly hypocritical commercial advocacy of videoconferencing for business purposes. It turns out, Ken might have a point. Even Randy Harrell, the Cisco director of product management, says, "There’s such a disdain in upper management here for videoconferencing."

If there’s disdain for videoconferencing at Cisco, what sort of reception awaits the high-priced concept in other executive suites around the world?


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