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Videoconferencing: Simple, Lower-Cost Options Grow

Cisco Callway, Polycom, Vidtel, others offer easier to use videoconferencing systems.

Cisco Umi
Slideshow: Cisco Umi Takes Telepresence To The Home
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Cisco Systems set the standard for high-end, high-definition videoconferencing with its TelePresence system introduced a little over five years ago, but not everyone can afford its studio systems that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. So Cisco and several of its competitors have broadened their portfolios with desktop and mobile systems and videoconferencing as a service with a low monthly fee. This, as an analyst put it, "democratizes" videoconferencing.

One of the most recent entries into video for the masses from the cloud space is Cisco's Callway service, introduced in October with prices starting at $99 per month per endpoint. It works with TelePresence systems such as the EX60 and EX90 desktop models, Cisco videophones, and the Movi camera, which hooks onto the back of a laptop computer.

"I wouldn't say it's about pricing as it is around making sure that our customers can have a full range of products for whatever needs they have," said Gina Clark, VP and general manager of Cisco's TelePresence Cloud business group, in a video interview conducted over the Callway service. Clark, although based in San Jose, Calif., participated in the videoconference from Arizona using a home desktop system, while I joined via a loaner Moxi camera on a laptop.

For one-to-one calls, the user enters a 10-digit number followed by the words "@callway.com" to connect. For meetings with multiple participants, people are directed to connect to a specific conference bridge. The HD camera hooks onto the top of the laptop and plugs into a USB port.

[ Videoconferencing and related technologies can bring the world's best and brightest to your workforce. Learn how Unified Communication Expands Workforce Talent Pool. ]

While Clark said it's not about price, the Callway service's website bears the headline: "Telepresence Isn't Something You Have to Put Off Anymore."

The Cisco strategy--as well as that of competitors with similar offerings--is to make videoconferencing simple, with plug-and-play hardware, no upfront capital expense, and a cheap monthly service plan, said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research.

"Cisco is trying to democratize video in that they want to get video to as many people as possible, and ultimately that's good for Cisco because it drives lots of network bandwidth," Kerravala said.

There are other vendors with a similar service to Callway, he added, including Vidtel, which delivers videoconferencing over an Internet connection of at least 500 kbps, a camera supporting the SIP or H.323 video standards--as well as Skype or Google Talk--and a Vidtel subscription. Another option is Glowpoint's Cloud Managed Video Services. Highlights of its offering include a Web-based video management portal, integration with Microsoft Exchange or IBM Lotus Notes, and the option of self-management or a managed service provided by Glowpoint.

Cisco's chief competitor in videoconferencing is Polycom, whose latest effort to democratize videoconferencing was the October introduction of RealPresence Mobile software, a free download that enables an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet computer or a Motorola Xoom smartphone to be a video endpoint. Other players such as Vidyo, a cloud infrastructure offering, and Blue Jeans Network, a cloud-based video service, also tout the ability to let people join from a variety of different devices.

While vendors tout the interoperability of their systems, Kerravala thinks it's still a chore for IT to make that happen and that true interoperability is still a few years off.

Although simple and affordable systems spread videoconferencing adoption, the technology presents another challenge, he said: set design.

As participants join video meetings from homes, cubicles, hotel rooms, or airports, production values can vary. Some sit before a window, causing sunlight streaming in to show them only as a silhouette, while others' faces are off-center or the background is messy and cluttered. And a high-ceilinged room can affect acoustics. They don't have to look like a TV anchor, but they need to pay a little more attention to their video image.

"I think Cisco should offer an 'Extreme Makeover' service for video," said Kerravala. "There's a lot to think about when you're putting video in your home. There should be a basic set of best practices."

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.

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