Cisco Brings Telepresence Home

New entry-level device lowers the bar for home-based video conferencing but interoperability could be an issue.

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Oct 7, 2010
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Cisco is expanding its market reach into the home with its new "umi" (pronounced "you-me") video conferencing telepresence device announced today.

The umi device will connect to consumer HDTVs using an HDMI input port, and includes its own HD camera. The umi enables users to make video conference calls as well as record video messages, which they can share on YouTube or Facebook.

Cisco's umi device follows four years of investment by the company in the business telepresence space, including the $3.3 billion purchase of video-conferencing vendor Tandberg earlier this year.

"Video is the next market transition in our personal lives and in our business lives," Cisco CEO John Chambers said in a video message announcing the umi.

Chambers noted that the umi has potential applications both at home and in schools as video collaboration changes the way that people work and live.

Collaboration, however, might be limited to a subset of the broader consumer video conferencing ecosystem. Cisco's noted that the umi device is interoperable with Google's video chat technology, though it is not clear if the device at some point will be compatible with Skype or other consumer video conferencing services and technologies. On the enterprise side, Cisco is working on an standard called the Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP) to help connect corporate telepresense systems. Cisco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Interoperability may not necessarily be a key component for the Cisco umi to be successful, according to Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

"I didn't expect interoperability at this stage to be an element of the product," Dulaney told InternetNews.com. "I believe that their focus was a system that achieved technical milestones for a quality of service. And they expect most installations to be talking between two umi units to preserve the experience."

Though the umi is targeted as a home device, Dulaney noted he doesn't expect Cisco to sell the umi in the kinds of volumes that the phrase "consumer telepresence" would imply. The broader goal could well be for the umi to serve as an on-ramp for Cisco to sell more of its traditional networking gear.

"Cisco positions this as a premium device," Dulaney said. "Also, I believe that Cisco's consumer efforts are to spur more networking demand, which will then drive sales of Cisco products both in the enterprise and in service providers -- key targets for them."

Other consumer-focused video conferencing efforts, such as Apple's Facetime offering for iPhone and iPod Touch, as well as further advances in Skype could pose long-term challenges for Cisco'a umi, he noted.

"But in the end, Cisco may be happy with this because as long as demand for video and intelligence in the network grows they will have preserved the long-term need for their networking portfolio," Dulaney said.

The Cisco umi is set to be available at BestBuy stores in November for $599, and will also require users to sign up for a video usage plan, which is slated to cost $24.99 a month.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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