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Enterprise video conferencing vendor market to set open standards?

Leigha Cardwell

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Interoperability is fast becoming the litmus test for enterprises shopping for enterprise video conferencing and telepresence vendors. Prior to recent, pervasive consolidation in the video conferencing market, interoperability and ease of use were top drivers for video conferencing. With new conferencing combinations like Cisco/Tandberg, Polycom/Juniper, LifeSize/Logistics and, most recently, Radvision/Aethra, we expect multivendor standards compliance to top the shopping list, but will the new conferencing landscape continue to push quasi-open standards or old-school licensing of proprietary extensions?

Enterprise customers want to know!
Imagine if you could watch only NBC, CBS or The Discovery Channel based on which television brand or model you had; or if you could speak to only those people who had the same brand of phone as yours? The same premise applies to video conferencing. Users expect the same seamless integration and available features whatever type of installed video and telepresence system they have.

"Video will continue to grow, but I think its big limiting factor really is [that] you can't do multi-company video conferencing very easily," said Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group. "For video to become ubiquitous, that hurdle has to fall."

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Before Cisco acquired Tandberg, Tandberg and top competitors like Polycom actively contributed to industry consortiums like IMTC and standardization bodies like ITU-U to bolster standards compliance across video systems. Some even credit Tandberg with being the first vendor to actively promote telepresence interoperability.

"Organizations shouldn't be locked in by technology," said Tandberg's CEO Fredrik Halvorsen, prior to Cisco's acquisition. "[Tandberg's] vision is to enable open communities where people can collaborate naturally no matter how they are connecting."

Now that Tandberg belongs to the Cisco coalition, Tandberg's perceived commitment to and creditability in the interoperability space has depreciated in value.

Why? Because Cisco's business model has historically been focused less on supporting standards compliance and more on providing proprietary extensions to SIP and other open protocols, thus requiring licensing for full interoperability.

In a blog post, Tom Keating notes that Cisco was reticent to adopt SIP standards, holding off until 2006, further illustrating that Cisco doesn't have a track record of supporting standards.

Keating's blog, posted on Oct. 1, 2009, explains that while the Tandberg acquisition was a smart move for Cisco, the acquisition may not be good for enterprise business.

"My guess is that Cisco will do what they did with their native Skinny-protocol IP phones, which is if you want interoperability, you'll have to license the SIP protocol. I suspect something similar will happen to businesses that wish to deploy video telepresence solutions. You will either go 100% native Cisco/Tandberg for all your video endpoints, or you will pay through the nose to use a third-party video endpoint."

Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP)
Just three months later, on Jan. 26, Cisco released to the public domain an interoperability protocol, Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP), which allows multi-screen telepresence systems to interoperate. Keating's predictions hit the mark, at least with regard to foreseeing protocol licensing, but his vision about Cisco/Tandberg customers "paying through the nose" has not yet come to pass. However, with Cisco steering clear of SIP until 2006, backed by the company's well-established attachment to its license-based business model, customers may still get to pay through the nose if they don't go all Cisco/Tandberg.

For now, and perhaps indefinitely, Cisco is offering software and hardware manufacturers the TIP protocol licensing free of charge. I'm going to be optimistic and say that with its acquisition of Tandberg, Cisco bought a respected place on the open road. I'm calling this a good-faith move by Cisco to help resolve the inherent interoperability issues of telepresense.

Optimistic , but not naïve. TIP is still a proprietary telepresence protocol and not an open, industry standard. It's an intellectual property that uses existing standards to provide interoperability.

Thus far, LifeSize (recently acquired by Logitech for $405 million), Tandberg and Radvision have signed agreements to license TIP. Polycom and Hewlett-Packard have not yet signed on as licensees, though other telepresence vendors are reportedly reviewing the protocol license.


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