4 Potential Pitfalls For Cisco's Umi Telepresence

The scenario of granny and grandpa watching their grandchild's first steps while sitting on their couch thousands of miles away has long been one of the central promises of telepresence in the home. It's a technology that basically sells itself once people get a glimpse of what it can do.

Now it's here, and Cisco is about to launch a marketing blitz to get telepresence firmly ensconced in the minds of consumers. But while Cisco's Umi Telepresence is an impressive and sensibly designed product, there are some potential holes in the strategy that could make consumers' march to home telepresence something less than an enthusiastic stampede.

1. Is Umi Telepresence Too Expensive?

Impressive as it may be, Umi Telepresence is going to have to come down a lot in price for it to gain critical mass in the home, and this would be true even if the economy weren't still stumbling around like Charlie Sheen at a Malibu beach party.

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At $599 for the hardware, and $24.99 for a monthly subscription, Umi Telepresence represents a significant investment for many folks, especially given the plenitude of free Web videoconferencing options. Of course, these free products can't hold a candle to the high-definition experience Umi offers, but a lot of people are still looking at the technology through the lens of "It's good enough, and free."

Another factor, of course, is that all parties communicating through Umi are going to have to have their own systems, which adds to the collective investment. "It's like the first person who bought a fax machine, who quickly realized they needed others to buy fax machines too in order for it to have any value," said Gary Berzack, CTO and COO of eTribeca, a New York-based solution provider.

Next: Questions About Broadband Coverage

2. Is Broadband Coverage Pervasive Enough?

Sure, broadband seems to have ubiquitous coverage if you're living in a city, but there are still plenty of places around the U.S. where it has yet to arrive. According to IDC, 32 million U.S. households currently have broadband connections and high definition televisions, and that figure will rise to 60 million households by 2012.

Cisco has designed Umi to work with the broadband connections people already have, but garden variety 1.5 Mbps connections will only be able to deliver 720p video. To get the full force of the Umi experience, and the 1080p video that delivers it, consumers will have to pony up for a 3.5Mbps connection.

3. Will Interoperability Be A Priority?

At the Umi launch event, Cisco executives made a point of mentioning that Verizon's Umi will be interoperable with Umi customers on Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and other service providers. Umi will also be interoperable with Google Video Chat, but as for Skype and other service providers, the jury is still out. Cisco says it's open to building further interoperability partnerships, but these can be tough to hammer out in the networking business.

Interoperability between different services will be crucial to building a market for telepresence in home. Cisco Umi Telepresence may get there eventually, but until it does this is going to remain a concern for some potential buyers.

"The killer home telepresence product would be one that allows Skype, Google, Apple and other videoconferencing service providers in a gateway environment at no extra cost," said Berzack. "We've yet to see that, though, and I doubt it will happen easily."

Next: Questions About Verizon's Service Contract Terms

4. What Are The Service Contract Terms?

The monthly subscription for Umi Telepresence is $24.99, and Verizon has been conducting field trials with Umi and plans to offer it to FiOS customers in early 2011. But Verizon wasn't on hand for the Umi Telepresence launch event, and the carrier hasn't divulged the details about what its service contract terms will be for the Umi service.

Verizon couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

If Verizon allows customers to go month-to-month with their Umi Telepresence, as AT&T does with iPad data subscribers, this would give people a chance to kick the tires and see if it's right for them. But carriers in general are loathe to provide service without locking customers into some sort of contract.

And when you consider the amount of data that's going to be flowing through Verizon's pipes, the carrier is going to want a guaranteed return on its Umi investment.