Cisco Adds Videoconferencing To IP Phones

The software will give IP phones real-time videoconferencing and collaboration capabilities for less than $200 per user.
Cisco Systems on Wednesday unveiled software for its midrange and upper-range Internet-based telephones that will add real-time videoconferencing and collaboration for less than $200 per user.

Cisco, best known for its switching hardware that powers Internet traffic, launched server-based software, Cisco CallManager 4.0, on Wednesday, and in April will follow up with client-based drivers to patch Windows desktops and laptops into its IP-based PBX systems for delivering the video end of the conversation.

In combination with its midrange and high-end IP phones, including the 7940, 7960, 7970, and 7936, the software integrates audio done over the phone with PC-based videoconferencing--all of it managed by the company's PBX system and carried over the organization's network or via the Internet.

The client side of the new offering, dubbed Cisco Video Telephony Advantage 1.0, transparently adds real-time, person-to-person video to telephone calls, said Marthin De Beer, VP of Cisco's IP communications group.

"We're making videoconferencing as simple as a phone call," said De Beer. "Once you're in the call, you have all the functionality of the PBX system. You can put the call on hold, for instance, transfer the call, even hit a conference button for an ad hoc meeting."

But, he stressed, this is more than just another addition to an already glutted videoconferencing market. He ticked off barriers to existing videoconferencing, including hard-to-use software, lack of integration with the telephone, high price, and management hurdles, touting CallManager 4.0 and VT Advantage as best of breed in all those areas.

"Videoconferencing now becomes just another phone call," he said. "There's no new interface to learn, since the solution uses the phone's interface, which everyone knows."

Calls made through Cisco's IP phones will automatically detect if the party on the other end is video-enabled, and then make that option available.

But while one analyst lauded Cisco's move, he didn't paint a rosy picture of businesses jumping on video.

"It's clear that Cisco is trying to increase value to its IP phones by adding video, and to its credit this is the first time we've seen this kind of integration," said Chris Kozup, program manager at the Meta Group. "But that doesn't change the fact that enterprises must make a business case for adding video across the network." The business case for video remains "a bit fuzzy," he added, while another barrier is the impact that the high-bandwidth video data streams will have on the network.

"It's a double whammy of sorts," he said, speaking of the lack of a clear reason to upgrade to video and the hit on network performance.

"This will definitely be a gradual change," Kozup said--not a great leap forward. "I don't think you're going to see a whole lot in the next six to 12 months. But as networks become more robust and scalable, some businesses will deploy video on a limited basis to knowledge workers and others, people who can benefit from face time."

Cisco also said it will bolster security in its IP phones by adding embedded digital certificates into each device, so that when a phone is first connected, it goes through an authentication process, and when calls are placed, the setup is authenticated and audio data is encrypted. CallManager 4.0 will also feature an intrusion-detection system, firewall, and audit logging via the inclusion of the new Cisco Security Agent.

Although the video side of the conference won't be encrypted in this release, De Beer said that would be added in a future rollout.

CallManager 4.0, available now, is priced starting at $5,995, while Cisco VT Advantage 1.0--the Windows 2000 and Windows XP component necessary to add videoconferencing to IP phone calls--will ship in April for $190 per user, including a USB-based camera.