Cisco Redefines Chutzpah
Though it's now opposing a proprietary Microsoft-Skype combination, supporting standards wasn't always Cisco's goal.
Last month's bold move by Cisco, appealing to the European Commission to impose restrictions on the already approved Microsoft-Skype merger, brings new meaning to the technical term "chutzpah" in the IP communications world. It also promises to make our upcoming session on "Interoperability--What is it and how do you get it" (27 March 8:00am) a potential fisticuffs experience at Enterprise Connect.
Those who have followed the videoconferencing industry for any length of time will be very familiar with the history of mergers/acquisitions, lawsuits, patent claims, and outright hostility between competitors. But fundamentally the issue since the 1980s has been the dynamic tension between industry standards, which in the communications world are defined by the Geneva-based ITU's Recommendations, and proprietary protocols, which most developers feel provide superior performance for their own products. Theoretically, products that comply with industry standards can interoperate. (Interoperability and standards have been the core religion in fax and telephony since 1886.)
In reality, this is mostly true for videoconferencing, but not always; and when it is true, it doesn't always give the best result--i.e., systems from different vendors can connect, but may not provide the optimum quality of experience. Systems that are not interoperable cannot connect at all. Further complicating the videoconferencing scene (and UC as well) is that the nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.
Some "protocols" or solutions become industry standards by default. A classic example is Microsoft Windows, clearly a proprietary technology, but so dominant that it is essentially an industry standard. Skype would fall into this category as well. While it's true that Skype is proprietary, the fact that it is being used by over 170 million users worldwide makes it almost an industry de facto standard. And the fact that it can be downloaded for free makes the argument even more persuasive.
In the videoconferencing industry today, we have many protocol islands, some of which are standards-compliant, like H.323; others are on their way to standardization, like SIP. Others are large, like Skype, and others are small but growing fast, like Microsoft Lync, and Apple's FaceTime. Users can talk to other users on the same island, but cannot communicate with users on other islands unless a special gateway is available within the enterprise or via a service provider. Gateways generally introduce cost, scalability and performance issues that are not present when "native" interoperability is possible.
This brings us to the current Cisco-Skype situation and raises at least three questions: Why is Cisco doing this now? What does Cisco hope to achieve by this appeal? And how can we not see this as an example of hypocrisy on the part of the world's largest telecommunications equipment provider?