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Cisco's Consumer Telepresence: Umi, Oh My, Not So Fast

Cisco built its Umi home telepresence system from scratch, a clear sign that it's serious about the consumer market. But the nifty product will likely struggle if it can't work with other consumer video solutions, especially at its somewhat hefty price.

Cisco has taken a page from Apple's book: it controls the quality of the experience through its hardware. And the quality looks amazing. Granted, the demonstrations are controlled in settings that Cisco oversees (and buys the bandwidth for), but the combination of high definition video camera and video encoder coupled with high-speed Internet access and a high definition television ... well, it's easy to see why grandpa's going to wet himself a little.

Or, he may have seen the price tag. $599 for this kind of hardware seems almost reasonable, if a little high. Add $24.99 a month for the service, and now there's a hesitation. Here's the kicker: who will you telepresence with? That's right: grandpa needs to buy one for each set of grandchildren (woe to ones who don't get one; note: you're probably also not in his will). That's if everyone's got HD TVs and high speed connections. The system will provide 1080p high definition video, but you've got to have 3.5 Mbps up and down to support that. The good news is that it will dynamically throttle down, but you still need a solid 1.5 Mbps up and down for 720p. For this reason, it's also not possible to do anything but video chat OR watch television. No picture in picture here -- you can't watch a football game while nodding absently while a loved one rails against the man.

Cisco would do well to interoperate with a variety of other technologies, and fast. It's already done so with Google; not only can Umi participate in Google video chats, you can add your Google Talk contacts to Umi (otherwise you add them by hand). Cisco's next moves need to include Skype, Yahoo, Microsoft, iChat and FaceTime.

Sure, the quality is going to be a fraction of what a complete Umi experience can offer, but it's not exactly like watching an IMAX film on a smartphone either. If consumers are going to buy these one at a time, they'll get the most out of the experience by using it often, and that means a heavy duty contact list from all available sources. Come on Cisco! You probably even know somebody at Skype.

Users will weigh whether Skype video is good enough. You could also envision an iPhone running FaceTime having a video chat over TV using the Apple TV product or its Apple Composite AV Cable kit. Cisco believes that high definition will be important for immersive, emotional connections like video chats. The argument that its core routing and switching business stands to gain from that is a foregone conclusion, of course, but given the efforts Cisco is putting into Umi, it clearly plans to succeed based on the product's merits as well. It has had Umi in homes with 1,000 customers since March, taking feedback and revising the product, even requiring that its testers complete feedback assignments.

De Beer talked about virtualized services into the home: what Cisco calls "health presence," along with education, government services, and wealth management. There's truly a market for that, but first Umi has to make huge inroads for those businesses to be interested.

Best Buy and Cisco are already taking orders for Umi. Best Buy also offers installation, if necessary. Cisco has also been in field trials with Verizon, and the carrier plans to offer Umi on its FIOS service in early 2011.

Resources: Cisco Announces Umi Home Telepresence Services; Cisco Talks Telepresence Direction.

Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.

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