Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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10/7/2010
10:16 AM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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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 Umi
Cisco Umi Takes Telepresence To The Home
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
In the type of grand event usually reserved for the announcement of a new phone platform or some a groundbreaking consumer gadget, Cisco -- the staid and steady builder of the pipes of corporate and public networks -- on Wednesday announced Umi, a home telepresence solution which will be available in mid-November. After four years of thunderous and unrelenting telepresence evangelism aimed at business and IT, Cisco will give its inexorable CEO a break, leveraging instead the likes of Oprah (for her remote guests) and Ellen Page to rain down upon the masses.

There's plenty to like here. On the surface, at least, the quality and packaging of the technology is high. But there's also plenty to question, like whether Cisco can capture consumers, the debilitating effect of a closed ecosystem, and the price.

If Cisco is going to succeed, it's off to the right start. Umi comes out of its emerging technology group, headed by Cisco veteran executive Marthin De Beer, sure to be next on the exodus list if history is any guide. Umi also has its own group, and Cisco's consumer business has its own marketing VP. The Umi technology is also new; not, as one would think, playing off existing product expertise from the likes of Tandberg (cameras and video encoding) and Scientific Atlanta (set top boxes), but built from the ground up. Don't look now, but Cisco might just be more than an acquisition machine (also see: Cius and Quad). Instead of trying to retrofit existing technology and foist it on a new market, Cisco addressed the new market with a fresh approach.

The other edge of that sword: Cisco can't expect to become a consumer technology winner overnight, even if Oprah gives each audience member a Umi for Christmas. Linksys and Flip (from its Pure Digital acquisition) remain the known consumer brands, even if Cisco's name is on the products. Ultimately the Umi technology will also have to stand on its own.

For the consumers Cisco showed off in its demos -- families, grandparents, children -- the technology has to be dead simple. Other than a few simple cables (HDMI from the Umi set top box to the TV and to your existing DVR and/or set top box, HDMI and USB from the Umi set top box to the Umi camera, Ethernet -- wired or wireless -- out to through your existing Internet connection, and brackets for the camera to attach to your existing HD TV) there's not much to it. The remote control unit can pan, zoom and tilt the camera, and it brings up a very small "clover" on the TV, from which you make or accept a video call, record video messages, sort through your contacts (or add them), and adjust minor items like your profile picture or video greeting. You can also forward video messages (unless the creator makes them private). All video stored in the Umi cloud can be accessed via the Web, including on devices like iPads or smart phones.

There are also some important privacy controls -- Cisco said that early consumer testing revealed fears that the camera would somehow be a window into the living room. In fact, the camera shutter is automatically closed when not in use. You can set up Umi to only receive calls from contacts; you can block callers; and there is a parental lock feature as well.

All of this runs in the Cisco Umi cloud. One hopes that little tidbit won't be part of the consumer marketing experience -- you can just see the suburban couple at Best Buy hearing that part and wondering about the retail company's drug testing policies. But the cloud is the service; it's where video messages are stored, it houses the web portal where contacts are managed, and it administers the Umi experience.

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