Cisco's Emerging Collaboration Strategy

More than just a way to eliminate some face to face meetings, collaboration technology ranging from wikis to pricey telepresence systems will reignite productivity, says John Chambers.

Richard Martin, Contributor

January 24, 2008

4 Min Read

Consumer products company Procter & Gamble has purchased about 15 Cisco TelePresence units and plans to deploy a total of 48 by April 1. The directive to invest in high-end collaboration technology, says Laurie Heltsey, director of global business services, came from the top. CEO A.G. Lafley challenged P&G managers 2-1/2 years ago to make the company "the most collaborative in the world," Heltsey says. At the same time, CIO Filippo Passerini "is very supportive of video as an enabling technology in many different business scenarios." So much so, in fact, he's been part of Cisco events hawking the technology.

Cisco TelePresence is seen as an especially valuable tool for P&G when collaborating with suppliers, partners, and retailers. "We do have some business-specific processes that are very well-suited for video," Heltsey says, "instances where you need your eyes for a visual review of some subject or item."

That sounds mighty powerful -- as long as the partner at the other end has a Cisco TelePresence room of its own. Despite Chambers' insistence on the potential for the technology to transform intracompany relations, the fact remains that there's no fully interoperable telepresence system in the world today, from Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Polycom, or any other high-end videoconferencing vendor.

Cisco recently announced that its TelePresence units would work with existing standards-based videoconferencing systems, including SIP, H.323, and those supporting high-quality sound with G.711 audio codecs and high-quality video with H.264 video codecs. But those are legacy desktop systems, not other telepresence ones. "It's not like you can pick up a phone, whether it's a Motorola or a Cisco device or whatever, and still connect regardless of which service provider you use," says Nora Freedman, senior analyst for enterprise networks at IDC. "It's still very much you can only dial internally and connect among peers and colleagues." Cisco says it will interoperate with devices from Polycom, Tandberg, Sony, Aethra, VCON, PictureTel, VTEL, Huawei, and Microsoft.

One sticking point: establishing quality of service across carrier networks, particularly internationally. It's one thing to get Verizon and AT&T to connect for a telepresence session. It's quite another to get Verizon to work with BT in London and China Telecom in Shanghai. Much of Chambers' spiel around telepresence has to do with holding multiple meetings on multiple continents in a single day, so that's a serious drawback, albeit less than requiring each participant to shell out for a high-end Cisco system.

Partly, though, it's a Cisco thing. The world's largest provider of networking infrastructure isn't suddenly going to start providing fully open, interoperable, standards-based telepresence systems, even if that's what embracing the wild, wild Web 2.0 frontier entails.

"Cisco is betting on a proprietary approach," says Michelle Damrow, head of product marketing for Polycom's telepresence group. "We think standards-based communications will win eventually."

Indeed, Cisco faces strong competition in this nascent market, from the likes of HP, which introduced its Halo telepresence system before the Cisco product launched, and videoconferencing leader Polycom, which offers a high-end telepresence system with merged, seamless displays, as opposed to Cisco's three-separate-screens approach. Damrow notes Polycom is betting on a standards-based system that will interoperate with any standards-based video codex on the market today. And while HP's Halo is a closed architecture, à la Cisco TelePresence, HP is working with Tandberg and other vendors to introduce some degree of "family and friends" style interconnection.

Even if Cisco sells a few dozen TelePresence units to every P&G-size company in the United States, you've still got a relatively small business by Cisco standards. Where will the growth--and the business-model revolution envisioned by Chambers--come for Cisco 3.0?

The answer, as you might expect, is that Cisco believes its installed base, its brand power, and its marketing muscle will push enough TelePresence units into the market to allow it to become the de facto standard. Telepresence itself, says Chambers, will be offered as an on-demand managed service, at off-site locations for companies that can't or don't want to invest in their own systems. And when interoperability among multiple vendors does come, it will be on Cisco's terms, not industry-imposed.

If that's not quite Web 2.0 enough for you, well, welcome to John Chambers' world. Cisco 3.0: Coming soon to a three-screen, high-definition, surround-sound theater near you.

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