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LifeSize debuts video support for enterprise Skype, UC pros still split

LifeSize will natively run Skype's code and federate with its massive directory on LifeSize Passport units, but UC pros remain ambivalent as ever about enterprise Skype usage.

Despite the ambivalence many unified communications (UC) pros harbor about enterprise Skype usage, users still want access to the service. With a global community of more than half a billion registered users, Skype is hard to ignore and it continues to elbow its way into the enterprise. Logitech LifeSize is making that bitter pill a bit easier to swallow for some skeptical UC pros by natively supporting Skype's proprietary protocols and federating with its massive directory services.

Customers with LifeSize Passport—the vendor's lower-end, mobile high-definition (HD) video conferencing product—will automatically be able to populate Skype contacts and presence information into Passport upon authenticating on Skype. Without leaving Passport, a user can initiate a point-to-point video call with any Skype user, and vice versa.

The feature is included in version 4.8 of Passport's software, which is free for LifeSize customers and due out this month. Until this release, LifeSize had supported only audio calls with Skype users. No other large enterprise UC vendor has announced Skype video conferencing support. Avaya supports Skype audio on its Aura platform and has publicly stated it plans to extend that to complete federation with Skype video, presence and IM in the second half of this year.  

Scott Aldridge, advanced technologies specialist for a U.S.-based engineering firm, which he declined to identify, is eager to test the new feature on his Passports. Aldridge has struggled to meet growing demand from users for enterprise Skype video conferencing.

"Our enterprise is like most [in that] we don’t encourage the use of Skype except for our employees on assignment overseas. I never get requests to use Skype audio on the Passports, but I get a good many requests for doing Skype video," Aldridge said. "I think that would be helpful for us. We get lots of requests to include a Skype video user on video conference calls and end up making other arrangements to support them."

Today if an employee traveling overseas wants to use Passport to make a Skype video call to family back home, Aldridge has to cobble together temporary workarounds. He typically instructs the external user to download a free trial version of LifeSize's desktop video conferencing software—which the firm has deployed—and configures his firm's software only to accept the session that one time, he said.

"Now that point-to-point Passport video calls will be possible with Skype users, I'll have to take a close look at its capabilities and see just what has to be done to make it work," Aldridge said.

Quality, reliability questions still dog enterprise Skype

Not every LifeSize customer is quick to embrace enterprise Skype with their deployment.

Brady Dreasler, director of engineering at Quincy Newspapers Inc. (QNI), a print and broadcast media company based in Quincy, Ill., is a self-confessed Skype fan for personal use and is in the process of deploying LifeSize Passport units to subcontractors. But QNI, which operates 12 television stations, has high standards when it comes to video quality and overall experience. Skype doesn't meet them.

"Would you be willing to hang out in a conference room for eight hours and [work on] budgets over Skype? Would it be a satisfying experience? No. But to talk to my kids for 20 minutes? It's amazing," he said. "I love Skype ... but it's not the same quality and experience as the enterprise-level LifeSize [units]."

Lower quality video between a Passport user and a Skype user isn't just a possibility that depends on the Skype user's Internet connection. It's practically a given.

A typical point-to-point session between two Passport users can reach up to 720p resolution at 30 frames per second (fps). But if that session turns into a Passport-Skype call, the maximum resolution automatically drops to standard definition, or 640x480, according to LifeSize. Depending on who initiated the call, the frame rate may drop as well. If a Passport user initiated the call, the session can maintain up to 30 fps; but if the Skype user initiated the call, the maximum frame rate drops to 15 fps.

Inconsistent quality and reliability have been major barriers to enterprise Skype adoption, according to Andrew Davis, senior partner at Wainhouse Research. Until users become more tolerant or until Skype can improve its service, the benefit for LifeSize customers now is access to Skype's massive user base, Davis said.

"One of the key values of Skype is it's easy to find somebody to call. If I know your email address or your name, I can find you," he said. "And [the lack of that in enterprise platforms] is what so many video conferencing users are frustrated by. They say, 'I have video conferencing in my conference room, but I don't know how to call you or get your number.'"

LifeSize: No mandate for enterprise Skype adoption

LifeSize is staying out of the emotional tug-of-war that UC pros have about enterprise Skype. After two years of research and development with Skype to develop point-to-point conferencing, LifeSize says it only wanted to give users more choice.

"My interest is not in telling the world, 'Boy you should do things this way.' What we're trying to do in this company is make systems that are open and interoperable," said Michael Helmbrecht, vice president of product marketing at LifeSize.

LifeSize has not announced any plans to extend Skype federation to its other products. But when asked whether users can expect future support for multipoint LifeSize/Skype calls, Helmbrecht hinted that multipoint support is forthcoming.

"That's at the top of the list [as we] continue to collaborate with Skype," he said. "This is a beginning—not an end by any means. It's going to get better and better, and broader and broader."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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