End in sight for telepresence rooms?

PHOTO: End in sight for telepresence rooms?

AS MORE video companies find ways to let users chat with each other on small devices, one has to wonder if those deluxe, dedicated high-end, high cost telepresence rooms will be relegated to fancy toys that companies don't use anymore.

Last week, Polycom announced a way for its customers to host multi-party video conferences within a browser window.

Polycom hosts can invite users outside of the company (and the Polycom world) to chat, as long as they have a browser and webcam.

The software platform is called RealPresence Cloud Axis, and the company said iPads and Android tablets are welcome to join the party.

In fact, Polycom expects more mobile devices to come in on video conferences, and has been angling towards supporting mobile devices in recent years.

Last year, for example, it released iPad and Android apps to allow tablets to join conferences with other Polycom users.

The big difference with the new announcement is the breaking out of the disparate "islands" of video calling, said Andy Miller, Polycom CEO.


He told BizIT that the main barrier that video calling has faced when it comes to being used more commonly is that systems don't talk to each other.

For example, a company using Cisco's WebEx line won't be able to connect with Polycom, and so on. And it's not easy to switch over, after companies have invested serious coin in their video conference equipment, which includes front end gadgets and back end servers.

To deal with that, Polycom customers can invite other users to click on a link and participate in a chat through a browser window.

Polycom also released a software plug-in that will allow the chat host to send chat invites through the instant messaging clients of other software.

That means you could receive the link to chat through a Skype window; clicking on it will bring you to a browser.

This platform is the fruit of over two years of R&D (research and development) on Polycom's end, said Mr Miller.

It's not full interoperability since you're pulled out of the video app into the browser, but it'll do for now, with the little interlinking that exists between companies' systems.

The Cloud Axis platform is also coming to businesses with a little more flexibility on the back-end.

Customers can either deploy it by running it on a dedicated server, or by licensing the engine and running it as a virtual machine on their existing x86 servers.

An on-demand service exists as well, from carrier partners.

The push to allow the asset to be licensed signals the burgeoning demand from smaller firms. By taking away the hardware cost typically associated with video conferencing purchases, in which companies need to cough up for video servers, Polycom is responding to companies which want to do more with what they already have.

However, one start-up seems to have beaten Polycom to the punch.

New Jersey-based Vidyo has been providing its software to customers as virtual machines since last year.

And in June, it launched VidyoWay, a platform that allows multi-vendor, multi-party video conferencing. That means it will connect its own systems with those from Cisco, Polycom and Lifesize, and support the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard for clients such as Microsoft Lync. Companies can join from their legacy systems, claims Vidyo.

SIP is a signalling protocol widely used for controlling communication sessions (both voice and video) over the Internet.

Eventual death

Vidyo has already racked up nearly 2,000 enterprise customers in the past few years since its inception, and has raised almost US$100 million in venture funding as at end-last year.

When Vidyo's senior VP of market development, Marty Hollander, spoke to BizIT in June this year, he pointed out that companies wants a way to do away with clunky back-end servers.

He revealed that Vidyo's software was also being licensed by the brains at Google for use in Google Hangouts, the latter's free consumer service allowing mult-party chats within a web browser.

Besides backend equipment, branded front-end equipment could go too, he said.

"Purpose-built devices will die eventually," Mr Hollander said, referring to the fancy video phones that vendors like Avaya, Cisco and Polycom have been selling.

Polycom's Mr Miller denied that his company's move was in response to firms like Vidyo.

"We have provided gateways to bridge back to legacy equipment. (Vidyo's) stuff appeals to greenfield deployments, but the reality is that very few companies are greenfield," he said. Polycom's target is more likely to be market leader, Cisco.

According to Synergy Research data, Cisco's global market share in this segment was 44.6 per cent at the second quarter of this year, down 6.3 per cent from the previous quarter, and a further 3.3 per cent from the corresponding quarter in 2011.

Polycom's share was 30.7 per cent, 4 per cent higher over quarter one and 2.6 per cent over the year before.

The other vendors like Logitech, Avaya and Vidyo, have yet to break into the double digits.

Dinesh Malkani, managing director for Cisco's collaboration business in the Asia-Pacific region including Japan, agreed that the trend towards the mobile is happening quickly, and pointed to the company's efforts to include the iPad in video calls.

Cisco Jabber, its instant messaging and video client, is available for the iPad.

"Customers have said their work styles are changing. They are no longer tied to a desk, they want to work out of a mobile desk or their homes," he told BizIT.

The firm has also been seeing growing numbers come to its WebEx web conferencing service, which allows companies to buy video conferencing from the firm on a software-as-a-service model.

The number of WebEx meetings went up 38 per cent year over year, with 9.6 million meetings conducted in August this year.

Downloads up

About 2.7 million mobiles have downloaded the WebEx app, with a 30 per cent jump in Apple-based downloads this year.

Mr Malkani, however, wouldn't say what proportion of customers are using WebEx, or whether the popularity of the cloud is coming at the expense of its backend appliances.

According to Raymond James financial reports, the total video conferencing industry has declined over the past year, dipping most sharply at the start of this year.

The main players, Cisco, Lifesize (Logitech) and Radvision, have shrunk below the market, while Polycom maintained slight positive growth.

When Mr Miller spoke to BizIT last year, he told us Asia was contributing 24 per cent, or US$87.1 million of the company's revenues.

At the time, he said high-end telepresence rooms were not going down in popularity, but that they were aided by price tags coming down.

When these rooms debuted in 2007, HP's Halo (which famously worked in lighting experts from Dreamworks) cost over half a million dollars per room. Having a conference set up would therefore cost a million at least for two destinations.

Now, the Halo system belongs to Polycom, having been acquired for just US$89 million last year. As a benchmark, Cisco's telepresence rooms cost US$300,000 per site, and Polycom launched its rooms at US$200,000.

By taking away the hardware cost typically associated with video conferencing purchases, in which companies need to cough up for video servers, Polycom is responding to firms which want to do more with what they already have.