Enterprise video moves beyond the meeting room

Business video is expanding, both from dedicated meeting rooms out to small client devices and from large enterprises down to small businesses, in a movement that Cisco Systems plans to tap into for significant growth over the next several years.

On Wednesday, Cisco is introducing products for distributing video, making it run on a variety of clients and helping users find recorded clips they might be looking for. These moves to complete the company's vision of pervasive video comes on the same day as Logitech's LifeSize subsidiary announces a videoconferencing bridge and Indian vendor Vu Telepresence makes a low-priced video meeting system available to small businesses in the U.S.

Cisco rekindled interest in videoconferencing in 2006 when it introduced its TelePresence Meeting System, which took advantage of high-definition screens, directional audio equipment and fat network pipes to deliver a more lifelike experience than many earlier systems. But the first Cisco TelePresence systems cost nearly $600,000 for a pair of rooms that each seated six participants.

Competitors offered alternatives with some of the same qualities for less, and over time Cisco scaled TelePresence down to units for offices, factories and warehouses and eventually homes. Meanwhile, Skype, Apple and other vendors have popularized less pristine video calling to a variety of other platforms, including mobile phones.

Cisco's plans go beyond TelePresence to encompass not only other types of videoconferencing but other forms of video, including entertainment, digital signage and surveillance. At the core of that vision is Medianet, a software and hardware infrastructure based in the network that handles the complexities of managing different types of video.

Cisco believes video will spread broadly across enterprises. The company's top customers told Cisco that they expected 80% of their employees to have videoconferencing on their desktops within the next five years, said Guido Jouret, chief technology officer of Cisco's Emerging Technologies Group. Not only will that add to data traffic, with video rising from about 50% of all packets now to 90% within the next few years, but it will require new tools within networks to deal with the requirements of a good video experience, he said.

"Video not only loads networks, it also changes networks," Jouret said.

The products introduced Wednesday help to bring Medianet into reality. A new release of Cisco's MXE (Media Experience Engine) 5600, which converts video for use on various platforms, adds to the list of endpoints it can work with. These include systems from LifeSize and Polycom as well as some desktop videophones. A new product, the MXE 3500, integrates Cisco Pulse, a platform for searching out specific multimedia content. For example, users can search for the part of a video presentation where the speaker talked about a specific topic. The new Digital Media Player 4310 is designed to help enterprises deploy large networks of digital signs and automatically distribute content to them.

Cisco is the only company that is driving video forward across so many fronts, partly because it can benefit so much from the increased need for network infrastructure that video can bring, said Wainhouse Research analyst Andrew Davis. The company's plan to make video available on all types of clients won't happen overnight, but it fits with what users want, Davis believes.

"Cisco is unique in this area in that they have a belief in video as a wide-scale medium and they're putting the money behind it to make everything happen," Davis said.

That evangelism will help to nurture the overall market for enterprise video, helping smaller rivals such as LifeSize, he said. LifeSize, which makes high-definition videoconferencing systems at lower prices than Cisco's, announced the LifeSize Bridge 2200 on Wednesday. It is the company's first release of a bridge, the device that links videoconferencing clients and controls the sessions they participate in. Previously, it worked with partners for these devices while selling its own endpoints, the video and audio systems installed in offices.

The Bridge 2200 is a 16-port unit that can host 16 clients at rates as high as 30 frames per second at 1080p or 60 frames per second at 720p. Priced at $64,999, it comes in well below the competition, said analyst Ira Weinstein, also of Wainhouse. Though it is missing some failover, encryption and other capabilities, which LifeSize can probably add later through software upgrades, the bridge is a good start for LifeSize, he said.

Vu Telepresence is aiming even lower than LifeSize with a system it says can deliver 1080p videoconferencing on a connection as slow as 500kbps (bits per second). A special low-bandwidth mode can work with as little as 200kbps. The Vu TelePoint platform costs $1,500, not including the display, but users will also be able to buy it as a service for $49 per month, said Akash Saraf, founder of Vu. The company, based in India, is targeting small and medium-size companies.

The Vu product is already available in India and the company has a few customers in the U.S., but it is now making the system generally available through U.S. channel partners this week, Saraf said.

With Cisco's initiatives, the growing array of offerings from other vendors and systems such as Skype, video communications will become widely used across enterprises and homes, Davis of Wainhouse said. However, that will take between three and five years, he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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