Cisco pushes to open up telepresence

Networking giant looks to improve telepresence compatibility

Cisco is making a concerted effort to improve the compatibility of its telepresence gear, something that industry observers say has been lagging, but that is sorely needed if it and other vendors are to succeed.

During its Collaboration Summit this week, the company told analysts that it is presenting its telepresence protocol to the IETF so other vendors can fashion ways for their equipment to interoperate with Cisco's, says Henry Dewing, an analyst with Forrester Research.

In addition, Cisco announced a Rosetta Stone of high-definition videoconferencing that will also address interoperability, one of the biggest problems facing the technology. "That's part and parcel of the problem people have -- interoperability with Cisco TelePresence," he says.

Submitting Cisco's telepresence protocol to the IETF means it could become a standard that other vendors could adopt or at least accommodate when creating their own gateways that translate the protocols used in videoconferencing, he says. The problem is that rather than send separate streams for video, audio and data, Cisco blends them into a single stream using its own protocols that other vendors have trouble interoperating with. Many other vendors send streams separately via standard protocols.

If the Cisco's protocol is dealt with by all vendors, telepresence and high-definition videoconferencing between businesses will become more common because businesses using HP or Polycom or Tandberg gear will be able to hold conferences with customers of Cisco's gear.

In addition to the announcements last week, Cisco's bid to buy Tandberg is seen as a step toward interoperability because Tandberg is widely viewed as making the best effort on its own to comply with standard protocols and to interoperate with other vendors' versions of those protocols. The Tandberg deal is pending and may fall through, but it still indicates that Cisco has an interest in compatibility.

Making business-to-business telepresence simpler will help all vendors and may be necessary if Cisco wants to reach its goal of making telepresence a $1 billion revenue stream for itself, Dewing says. But other announcements made at the Cisco Summit will contribute.

High among them is the Rosetta Stone router blade, Cisco's Media Experience Engine 560, that will provide connectivity among Cisco's TelePresence gear and products made by other vendors, including both telepresence equipment and high-definition videoconferencing hardware, the company says.

In general, telepresence gear attempts to create the illusion that distant participants are actually sitting across the table from each other with the idea that the conferences are realistic enough that companies can cut travel costs incurred to attend actual conferences.

Like the actual Rosetta Stone, Media Experience Engine has its limits. The device can translate protocols used by Tandberg, Polycom and LifeSize in their telepresence and HD video gear, Cisco says, but not other vendors. Participants in conferences from sites supported by those vendors' equipment can be displayed within Cisco telepresence sessions, and the Media Experience Engine. If a site uses a lower definition video display, for instance, the Cisco engine can scale down the transmission to suit the endpoint.

The new device will be available in January.

Another tool to push use of telepresence is the Cisco TelePresence Directory, which the company calls a White Pages for telepresence phone numbers. Companies wishing to set up telepresence sessions with other businesses that have Cisco telepresence gear can look up the number to call. This makes setup of conferences simpler, Cisco says.

Users would still have to clear the conferences with the other businesses in order to be allowed to make the connection, but configuring gear to join conferences is streamlined.

Business-to-business videoconferencing is complicated because companies buy gear made by different vendors and it isn't always interoperable. Cisco says it has more than 500 telepresence customers who theoretically could have telepresence conferences with each other.  

Because of interoperability challenges, much of telepresence gear is used within single companies.

Another push for interoperability among communications modes is Cisco's new Telepresence-WebEx Engage, which enables sharing of documents via WebEx during telepresence conferences. It also enables participants who connect only via WebEx -- excluding the video end of the conference -- to be heard and to hear the telepresence session.Cisco says that it plans to introduce bridging of Web cam video into these sessions later.

The Telepresence-WebEx Engage lets users schedule teleconferences and set up the WebEx segment of the meeting at the same time from the TelePresence dashboard.

Cisco is also introducing two IP phones, the 8900 and 9000 series, which have the ability to support video cameras.

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