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February 15, 2012

Cisco Pleads with EU Court to Prevent Microsoft from Creating a Video Conferencing Monopoly with Skype

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

The Associated Press (News - Alert) (AP) is reporting today from Brussels that Cisco is challenging the decision by the European Commission to allow Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype (News - Alert) without adding restrictions that would have demanded Skype adhere to open standards for video conferencing interoperability.  Microsoft filed an appeal of the EU’s October 2011 decision to green light the acquisition with the General Court of the European Union. It was joined in the appeal by Messagenet, a European VoIP service provider.   In one word, WOW!

The history of communications is the history of interoperability

Aside from the belatedness of this appeal by Cisco (News - Alert), it must be noted that history is on the company’s side.   Below is a short list of capabilities that all of us would not be enjoying on a local, national or global basis if interoperability had not trumped walled garden approaches to communications:

  • Telephone services: look back at pictures of downtown New York City in the early 1900s. There are wires everywhere. This was because, to talk to a friend you both needed to have service from the same company and there were a lot of companies until the Bell System prevailed in getting a monopoly. Read why Strowger invented the first switch so a competitor’s wife, who ran the patch cords at the local phone company that connected calling and called parties, could not divert calls intended for his mortuary business.
  • Facsimile: If there were no Group III standard back in 1983 there would be no universal fax capability, period.
  • SMS: It is good to be able to text any mobile phone. 
  • Email: Imagine a world where you could not send it to anyone but those on your service.

I could continue, but I think you get the point. In fact, give a read of Cisco’s Marthin De Beer blog today, for a rather thorough discussion of Cisco’s objections. My favorite few lines are:

“We respect the European Commission, and value Microsoft (News - Alert) as a customer, supplier, partner, and competitor. Cisco does not oppose the merger, but believes the European Commission should have placed conditions that would ensure greater standards-based interoperability, to avoid any one company from being able to seek to control the future of video communications.

This appeal is about one thing only: securing standards-based interoperability in the video calling space. Our goal is to make video calling as easy and seamless as email is today. Making a video-to-video call should be as easy as dialing a phone number. Today, however, you can’t make seamless video calls from one platform to another, much to the frustration of consumers and business users alike.”

The history of Cisco is proprietary hardware and software solutions

With all due respect to my many friends at Cisco, it would have been nice over the years if this passion for interoperability had extended across their product lines. Ask customers and -- just for an example -- companies in the Unified Communications (News - Alert) (UC) space how they feel about Cisco solutions and interoperability in heterogeneous environments.   The fact is that when Cisco bought WebEx and took a big plunge into the services business, they should have thought about just the issue they now raise. 

Shut the barn door, the horses have left the stable

The AP story quotes Antoine Colombani, a spokesman for the European Commission, as saying, “We will defend our decision in court.”  It would seem that while Cisco has a great case in saying video-to-video needs to be standardized one must question whether the folks in Redmond would be crazy enough to prevent Skype users from connecting with everyone else for video. As pointed out above the old axiom that, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” applies here to the max. The trend that openness/interoperability is the way to go is their friend, especially since it has always been true in the communications industry.

Finally, without getting into the politics of this very deeply, taking on the EU on what they believed is a settled case seems a large hurdle to leap over. If this was done to make a point with Microsoft, it surely was received. If this was done on the hopes of a reversal of the decision, the word “problematic” may not be strong enough to describe Cisco’s chances.


Peter Bernstein is a technology industry veteran, having worked in multiple capacities with several of the industry's biggest and best known brands, and has served on the Advisory Boards of 15 technology startups. To read more of Peter's work, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves
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