Cisco To Offer Subscription-Based Telepresence To SMBs Through Channel Partners

Cisco will offer subscription-based telepresence services to SMBs through the channel -- one of several video-related announcements the vendor plans to make Wednesday along with several new products in its TelePresence portfolio.

Among the new telepresence wares launching Wednesday are Cisco's MX300 -- a larger, 55-inch version of the MX200 endpoint Cisco debuted in July, offering 1080p at 30 frames per second video. Also new is a second generation version of its VX Clinical Assistant, a telemedicine-centric version of Cisco TelePresence offered to health care customers.

The big news for partners, however, is Cisco TelePresence Callway, which combines Cisco TelePresence endpoints with a subscription-based telepresence service hosted and managed by Cisco and sold through the channel. Callway service will start at $99 a month for SMB customers, a standard package that includes unlimited telepresence calling and data sharing. A premium version of the service, at $149 a month, adds higher resolution video.

Callway will work with Cisco's MX video systems, C40 codec, C20 quick set codec, and EX 60, EX90 and E20 video units, and Cisco customers can either buy or lease the endpoints. Cisco will also offer a service called MeetMe -- essentially a multiparty bridging capability that can support up to 12 callers -- for $349 a month.

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U.S.-based Cisco channel partners will get first crack at selling Callway. Solution providers need to be Cisco Telepresence-certified in order to sell the product, according to Gina Clark, vice president and general manager in Cisco's TelePresence Cloud Business Unit.

In addition to the new endpoints and services, Cisco is also launching Jabber Video for Telepresence, a software client that customers can use to connect into Cisco telepresence meetings even if they don't have Cisco telepresence or other comparable endpoints. In essence, that participant can click on a link sent to them and then be able to do full instant messaging, voice and video capabilities using the Jabber client, which will work with Cisco's Video Communication Server (VCS) Expressway and the Callway services. It'll be released in beta in the first quarter of 2012, according to Cisco.

During a conference call for media and analysts earlier this week, Marthin De Beer, Cisco senior vice president and general manger, Emerging Business Group, said video overall is a $5 billion business for Cisco, but is expected to hit $18 billion over the next three years as interest in video increases. Cisco is investing approximately $1 billion in R&D related to video, said De Beer, who now manages all of its video businesses: consumer, enterprise and service provider.

Cisco's latest moves come as various competitors aggressively target Cisco's video dominance, from Polycom looking to bulk up its channel relationships, services opportunities and software strategy to smaller competitors like LifeSize Communications, Vidyo and a host of startups jockeying for video channel business. Other major vendors with substantial unified communications practices, such as Avaya, Microsoft and Siemens Enterprise Communications, are also pushing video and its role in the broader UC and collaboration market.

Cisco's argument is that it's the only vendor to offer a full collaboration portfolio that touches everything from call control to video infrastructure and management capabilities. All of Cisco's collaboration endpoints, from Cius, its Android-based tablet, to its WebEx collaboration platform and its IP phones, are now video-enabled -- a point Cisco executives repeatedly emphasized during the media conference this week.

Cisco also now offers interoperability between its video products and those of other vendors that used standards-based protocols like H.323 and SIP, and as of November, all of its video products will have touch user interfaces.

Many of Cisco's recent product announcements address flexibility and easier management of video infrastructure; during its most recent telepresence product blitz this past July, for example, Cisco released the Cisco Telepresence Conductor, which can process multi-party conferencing request and automatically assign meetings to appropriate conference units -- meaning that telepresence meetings can be conducted on-the-fly, without so much pre-scheduling hassle.

Next: Cisco's Pitch To Video Partners Looking At SMB

O.J. Winge, senior vice president for Cisco's TelePresence Technology Group, said Cisco Callway adds to Cisco's vision of offering telepresence to companies of all sizes. He and Clark both made reference to Callway being a third option for acquiring Cisco telepresence, on top of the TelePresence systems and endpoints it already sells to enterprises and the hosted TelePresence it offers through global service providers.

Winge said that Cisco doesn't think Cisco Callway will conflict with existing platforms like WebEx, which use video and are popular among small and midsized business users, but are more about collaboration than immersive video conferencing, he argued.

"What's important is the human relationship building -- the ability to have that in-person type of experience, and that's the clearly differentiating factor," said Winge in an interview with CRN. "I am looking at these tools as very complementary in terms of the ability to use them together."

There's enough room for both, Winge said; WebEx is a data-sharing collaboration platform that can involve video, whereas Callway and the telepresence endpoints offer the immersive conferencing ability where users can see life-size images of their colleagues.

"You'd use the WebEx capability to post questions and have a dialogue, but you wouldn't want that popping up on your telepresence screen and ruin the experience you're having there," he explained. "I believe these technologies will eventually blend into each other and create various use cases."

While the resale of video endpoints is less and less lucrative for VARs as video becomes more ubiquitously deployed technology, Winge said Cisco believes there will continue to be growth in integration and services opportunities for solution providers behind that ubiquity, especially as customers look to bring video into different lines of business. Revenue in Cisco's TelePresence business has been been growing 20 to 25 percent over the past few quarters, Winge said.

"Everyone is always afraid of cannibalization and partners are always saying, what is happening to my revenue stream going forward," Winge said. "I'd tilt the discussion to say that we're only just scratching the surface with the use of telepresence. How many people do you know that are exposed to telepresence on a daily basis? There is an enormous amount of growth in this space."

Winge also acknowledged the increasing role of service providers in video sales to small business and midmarket customers -- and the fear from some solution providers that with the coverage breadth the service providers have, those solution providers will be cut out of the market opportunity.

Cisco sells hosted telepresence through 14 of the major service providers, including AT&T, Verizon, BT and Tata, but according to Winge, the push by service providers into video is also creating partnership opportunities for traditional channel partners, too.

"You do see a lot of VARs that are are actually partnering with these service providers, and you also see a lot of M&A-type activity," Winge said. "We see it as both a threat and an opportunity [for VARs], but the reality of this business is that it's both an extraordinarily global business and an extraordinarily local business."