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October 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 10
Feature Story

Commoners and Kings: New Videoconferencing Systems Target Broad Swath of Users

By: Paula Bernier (News - Alert)

Videoconferencing is expanding on both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, room-based systems are going even more high-end with the introduction of telepresence. On the other, a movement’s afoot to make videoconferencing an everyman’s tool.

Some are choosing sides in this David and Goliath development, but many are working both ends of the opportunity.

Targeting the High End

BrightCom, Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard, LifeSize Communications Inc., Polycom Inc. and Tandberg (News - Alert) are among the companies pushing telepresence solutions.

Telepresence makes videoconference participants feel as though they’re actually in the same room as their remote counterparts, a sensation Grace Kim, senior marketing manager with Cisco (News - Alert)’s Collaboration Software Group, describes as “a more immersive experience” than that offered by your standard room-based solution. With telepresence, Kim explains, the participants at the other end of the connection are life-size, and communications are face-to-face and allow for eye contact.

“When someone’s phone buzzes, everyone is touching their hips because they think it’s theirs,” she says.

Kim was unable to provide numbers on how many telepresence systems Cisco has sold to date, but some folks believe there’s a strong business opportunity here.

As TMC (News - Alert) recently reported (http://tmcnet.com/16387.1), new data from Frost & Sullivan indicates the telepresence solutions and video conferencing market is posed for strong growth, with the market expected to reach $4.7 billion by 2014. Of that total, the Asia-Pacific region is forecast to be a major market for telepresence and will account for more than one-third of the total market, or $1.7 billion in revenue, the report says.

The telepresence market in Asia is definitely seeing a strong growth and awareness,” Pranabesh Nath, an industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan’s ICT Practice for Asia Pacific, said in a statement. “However, to realize the full potential of this technology, customers need to be able to talk to each other no matter what telepresence system or vendor they use.”

According to Frost & Sullivan, the introduction of higher quality products, dropping broadband prices, and the need to cut business travel costs are just some factors fueling telepresence.

BrightCom of Huntington Beach, Calif., is one company experiencing an increase in the adoption of these technologies in Asia. BrightCom CEO Bob McCandless tells TMCnet business is good in the region because of the large amount of business – such as manufacturing – that the Asia Pacific provides for enterprises around the world.

But while many see great promise for telepresence, others say it’s a very limited opportunity due to the eye-popping price tags that often come with it.

One supplier of videoconferencing and other communications tools who asked not to be named tells Internet Telephony (News - Alert) that Cisco’s push into telepresence with “$100,000 to $300,000 rooms is silly” because the opportunity for such solutions in North America is 700 to 800 rooms max. Such a system might make sense for a meeting between Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers (News - Alert) and President Obama, the source adds, but otherwise it is pretty hard to justify.


Steve Vonder Haar, research director for Interactive Media Strategies, a research and consulting firm, agrees.

Telepresence (News - Alert) as it’s constituted today can be thought of as a technology for companies with more money than sense,” Vonder Haar says. “Any solution will ultimately be judged by its return on investment. And that return is hard to justify when you’re laying out six figures for a single room.”

Making It More Accessible

On the other end of the spectrum are new solutions that make videoconferencing more widely available to employees of all levels, whether they’re at their desks or working remotely on laptops or other mobile devices.

“Companies need to engage people where they need to collaborate with the equipment they have in a way that’s affective,” says Gary Dietz, senior product manager for Elluminate, which specializes in communications solutions for education and corporate training.

Dietz adds that 85 to 90 percent of traveling employees in any business vertical want to do collaboration and conferencing on their laptops. Elluminate offers solutions that can enable that whether an employee is working at a remote location with a great broadband connection or a weak one, he says.

One important product in the company’s portfolio is Elluminate VCS, which delivers VoIP and high-quality, real-time multipoint video, including HD. The system also interoperates with the H.323 and SIP solutions already popular with businesses today, Dietz adds.

With such systems now available and in use, Dietz says, the market for affordable and widespread videoconferencing has finally arrived.

“Real companies and real educational institutions are using this, [and] not just as a test environment,” he says. “It’s actually the basis on which our actual company runs. And it’s pretty amazing when you think about it.”

Bob Barnes, executive vice president of sales, marketing and business development at CallTower (News - Alert), which provides hosted unified communications solutions, agrees that videoconferencing is moving into the mainstream. He says CallTower, which a year ago added a videoconferencing component to its UC offer, recently has seen an uptick in customer interest in videoconferencing relative to its solution set.

Conferencing Convergence

Jim Kruger (News - Alert), Polycom’s vice president of marketing for voice communications solutions, notes that most videoconferencing today runs on a separate network, but that there’s a move to make this equipment and the application to fit in more with a businesses’ existing gear and applications.

For example, Polycom last spring introduced the VVX 1500, a SIP-based solution that integrates with the PBX (News - Alert) and can be used as the main communications device on a user’s desktop. It’s a phone that supports HD audio calls as well as videoconferencing. A seven-inch color touchscreen enables users of the device – which comes in two versions, one targeting SMBs and one integrated with the Cisco Unified Communications (News - Alert) Manager – to speed dial voice calls and connect with others via video.

An open API for the VVX 1550 allows third-party developers to integrate other applications, such as Salesforce.com, into the mix. The company will be demonstrating some of those applications, which it declined to discuss with Internet Telephony during a mid-August interview, at the Broadsoft Connections 2009 event in late October in Scottsdale, Ariz.

With a price tag (News - Alert) of $1,099, Kruger says the VVX 1500 admittedly won’t be the platform that brings videoconferencing to every user’s desktop. Rather, this tool is targeted at managers with a desire to be more productive without leaving their offices, he says. That said, the VVX 1500 does help usher in the delivery of videoconferencing to select desktops and in a very integrated way.

Going Mobile

So what’s the next big thing in terms of videoconferencing? It’s too soon to tell, but a good guess seems to be videoconferencing for the mobile phone.

“It is possible to envision a market where over time the delivery of live videoconferencing and real-time collaboration sessions on smartphones and hand-held devices becomes commonplace,” writes Paul Ritter, vice president of research at Interactive Media Strategies in a 2009 paper called “Mobile Multimedia Applications – Current Trends, Key Players and Best Practices.”

In the same paper, Ritter includes the following quote from Polycom CEO Robert Hagerty (News - Alert), which originally appeared Feb. 2 on Computerworld: “As we see bigger deployments in 3G networks, videoconferencing will be ubiquitous. Everyone will do it on handhelds. To be provocative, I’d say voice-only will be a rarity on wireless handhelds, and videoconferencing will be the norm, sometime in the not-too-distant future.”

Some of the largest players in videoconferencing are already starting to move in this direction. For example, Cisco in January announced plans to launch its WebEx service on the iPhone (News - Alert). The capability is not yet available, Kim told Internet Telephony in late August: “It’s something we’re working on.” But Kim indicates that not only will WebEx eventually run on the iPhone, but it will enable users to transfer their iPhone-based WebEx sessions to their desktop computers seamlessly and in real time.

“Mobile video opens the door to reaching the masses when and where they need to see a video,” notes Vonder Haar of Interactive Media Strategies.

It’s still early days for mobile video, adds Andrew Nicholson, product manager for Prosody products at Aculab (News - Alert), which in August announced support for video in its Prosody line of media processing products.

“But it’s not a one-dimensional market, there’s a huge array of things,” he says, including but not limited to videoconferencing on a mobile handsets, streaming video advertisements to consumers while they’re on the phone awaiting customer service and mobile TV. IT

TMCnet Web Editor Amy Tierney contributed to this story.

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