Cisco CEO on video technology: 'It's an art'

John Chambers uses the personal touch in home telepresence demo at CES

With a smile and a few handshakes for reporters, Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers launched into a 45 minute presentation at the CES show on Wednesday describing the future of video over networks.

Cisco has purchased several companies in recent years to further its video initiative, including Tandberg more recently and Pure Digital, the maker of the handheld Flip video camera.

But the biggest gun in Cisco's arsenal for success in sales of devices to bring all types of personal video to homes and businesses could well be the magnetic Chambers himself.

He has become a video evangelist for the company that once was known as the networking plumber to enterprises and service providers.

"Who would have thought a decade ago that Cisco would be here talking about consumer products and video?" Chambers asked with a chuckle. "It is video that changes everything."

For two years at least Chambers has been beating the video drum, talking about how annual growth in video traffic over networks will be 200% or more.

But in recent months he has become decidedly more personal in his appeals to the value of video, noting that consumers relate to video of family and friends because of the "experience, and not the technology."

At the Wednesday presentation, Chambers described new video in-home telepresence technology that will be trialed in the U.S. this spring, with Verizon Communications as an early partner. Cisco will provide set-top boxes and cameras, but consumers will be able to use their existing HDTVs, he noted.

In his talk, Chambers focused heavily on the intimate nature of video technology, using examples from his own family. On a screen, he showed short video clips he took with a Flip camera of his family boat excursion near Hawaii, showing whales surfacing in the ocean his wife racing down a zip line in a jungle in Costa Rica.

Chambers said his wife, Elaine, took him on the Costa Rica trip for his 60th birthday, and later, he talked in a live telepresence session using a living room HDTV and other equipment. "She's been my partner for 40 years," Chambers gushed as his wife sat on a sofa, presumably from their home in California.

As he signed off, he remarked about how he liked her dress and added, "Nice legs," to which his wife said, "That's enough." It didn't seem like a rehearsed exchange, and Chambers doesn't ever seem to stop himself from using such personal experiences to make a point.

Later when describing the value of using home telepresence for monitoring a person's health, with the ability for a patient at home to talk in videoconference with a doctor, Chambers interrupted: "Both my parents were doctors and my Dad delivered 5,000 babies. He said when the expecting mothers would call about being ready to go to the hospital; it was the calm ones he was most worried about. Imagine being to talk in video about that."

Videoconferencing in homes might take many years to catch on, especially in locations where the bandwidth is limited. But Chambers is wrestling instead with a potentially bigger issue than bandwidth, that being customer interest.

Chambers is a consummate salesman of course, but seems to have taken to video as a valuable personal medium like no other CEO in technology. In addition to his comments and examples Wednesday that were peppered with his own life experiences, he has been conducting monthly video blogs for the 67,000 Cisco employees, sometimes using a Flip camera on a tripod on his desk in his small office, a spokesman said.

When the Cisco public relations team first asked Chambers to do a written blog, he said, "No way," the spokesman said, noting that Chambers is dyslexic and wanted to avoid the typing and related tasks. But when the handheld Flip video became available and other video formats started being used, Chambers blossomed, he added.

Last summer at Cisco's Partner Summit in Boston, Chambers pulled out a Flip videocamera at a press conference and started recording the faces of the reporters at a U-shaped table who were asking questions. The effort seemed awkward and surprising to some who attended, probably not so much because of the technology involved, but because a successful CEO was the affable cameraman.

But Chambers also recognizes that he has to feel comfortable with the technology if he is going to ask consumers to also feel comfortable.

As for whether his personal videos are any good, Chambers seemed to answer that Wednesday. When he described video technology and integrating the use of it with families and business associates, Chambers said the process is more complex and personal than many people imagine.

"It's an art," he said. It's an art that is clearly changing Cisco.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smart phones and other handhelds and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter @matthamblen, send e-mail at or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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