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As Cisco TelePresence Turns 5, New Flavors

Videoconferencing technology celebrates its fifth birthday with smaller, more portable, and less expensive products.

Cisco Umi
Slideshow: Cisco Umi Takes Telepresence To The Home
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Cisco Systems is marking the fifth birthday of its high-definition telepresence videoconferencing system with a flurry of product announcements, including less expensive and more portable systems and by offering telepresence as a hosted service for small and midsize businesses (SMBs). And, responding to critics of its closed, proprietary ecosystem, Cisco said its technology is more interoperable with most other HD videoconferencing systems entering the market Cisco helped create.

To broaden its portfolio and offer telepresence technology that is more accessible to SMBs, Cisco is introducing Cisco TelePresence Callway, a hosted service that allows a customer to lease the equipment and the connection for $99 a month, or $149 a month for a higher-resolution service. The fee includes unlimited calls to any telepresence endpoint as well as to any standards-based, third-party systems.

Other videoconferencing vendors, such as Logitech's LifeSize, have previously offered cloud-delivered video.

[Three out of four companies are expected to be using videoconferencing in the next few years. Here are some of the reasons why.]

Also, Cisco introduced the TelePresence MX300, a multipurpose system that can be set up in just a few minutes in a smaller than average conference room. The multipurpose systems are not as complex as the room-based systems that feature specially made studios and multiple screens and cameras. The MX300 is a less expensive version of the MX200 Cisco already sells, said Randy Harrell, director of Cisco's telepresence technology group, who said the product was designed based on customer feedback.

Harrell said customers told the company: "I want a product for the rest of the conference rooms. I want you to build a product that I can deploy when budget is scarce." No pricing information was shared for the MX300, which is to become available in the first quarter of 2012.

Harrell also demonstrated a desktop-type system, the EX90, which combines an HD camera and monitor with a desk phone that has a touchscreen for controlling the system. Even more portable is the Movi, which attaches a telepresence camera to any laptop running a Windows or Mac operating system.

Cisco used its telepresence technology to connect Cisco employees, customers, partners, industry analysts, and reporters joining from global locations Tuesday to introduce the new offerings. While rivals such as Polycom and others have long offered videoconferencing and teleconferencing technology, Cisco raised the bar in 2006 with the introduction of telepresence, which it called "immersive" videoconferencing in which the images were so sharp and lifesize that participants who may have been time zones away appeared to be in the same room.

With its sizable marketing budget, Cisco got product placements on TV shows like the Fox network action-adventure series "24." Today, when anchors on MSNBC interview a guest at another site, they use Cisco TelePresence.

Cisco has been criticized over the years for offering a closed system in which participants on each end of a videoconference have to be on a telepresence system. But Cisco says it has now come to realize that interoperability is essential for wider adoption of videoconferencing in the context of unified communications technology for collaboration among an increasingly globally distributed work force.

"I think there was some kind of initial criticism around Cisco's TelePresence systems about interoperability," acknowledged O.J. Winge, a senior VP of the telepresence group. "In order to really define the experience, in order for people to get their arms around this type of technology, Cisco needed to push innovation quite hard, to give [users] a high-definition and in-person kind of experience. They pushed it so far that they broke interoperability in the first stage."

Over the years, said Winge--who came to Cisco from its acquisition of Tandberg in 2010 and participated in the media briefing from its headquarters in Oslo, Norway--Cisco came to realize it needed to improve interoperability by embracing industry videoconferencing standards such as SIP, H.323, and the Cisco-created telepresence interoperability protocol (TIP), which Cisco released to other system makers to use after the Tandberg acquisition.

Wainhouse Research issued a report tied to the announcements that showed Cisco commands a 52% share of the worldwide market for video infrastructure, based on revenue, in the first quarter of 2011. Polycom had the second biggest share, at 25%. Polycom recently added support for high-definition videoconferencing on portable devices such as tablet computers, something Cisco said it would also support.

Existing telepresence users say the more their employees experience the technology, the more they want it.

When consumer products giant Procter & Gamble opened its 80 telepresence rooms, they were used 40% of the time in an average 40-hour workweek, said Kathryn Murray, employee solutions and services section manager. Now it's up to 50% and the company is reluctant to push utilization above 60% because employees then would have trouble finding a room when they need one.

"[They say] 'We need more rooms. I can't get into one and I want to book more [meetings],'" Murray said, adding that for every $1 in telepresence investment, P&G realized an ROI of $4 in travel cost avoidance.

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