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Reports of Telepresence Death are Greatly Exaggerated
I read an article in Forbes titled "5 Reasons Cisco And Polycom Are In Trouble In Telepresence" by Jeff Cavins, CEO of FuzeBox, a cloud based conferencing and telepresence services company.
The author makes the point that the combination of cost, cloud, mobile, interoperability and collaboration will take the two telepresence market leaders, Cisco and Polycom down. I've had a couple of people ask me about this so I thought it was worth a response.
First, let's look at the author. Jeff Cavins is the CEO of FuzeBox. The mission of the company is to disrupt the status quo where success would be measured in taking a chunk out of Polycom and Cisco. I don't really want to say his viewpoint is skewed, but he runs an entire company built on this belief so it's logical he would have this point of view.
More importantly though, I think the statement is just flat out wrong. I understand the argument but it focuses on the telepresence of the here and now. So, if Polycom and Cisco continue to sell telepresence exactly the same way they do today then, I agree, they're in trouble. But you can say that about almost anything, can't you? If VMWare were selling the same product it was five years ago, it would be in trouble. If F5 had not evolved the product over that time period, it would be in trouble.
So will cloud, mobility and interoperability make it easier to do high quality video, cheaper and easier than ever before? Absolutely! The real question to be asked here is whether there is enough innovation left in telepresence to allow Polycom and Cisco to stay ahead of the commodity curve, and I think the answer to that is yes.
What telepresence does right now is it replicates the visual part of a face-to-face meeting. Can’t travel and need to "see" the person to look at body language? Want to build a better, more personal relationship? Use telepresence. But the visual element of the meeting is what's being addressed.
The area where I see Cisco and Polycom being able to innovate and stay ahead of the curve is to try and further improve the meeting experience and then create linkages to other collaborative applications. What I mean by this is that right now the only part of the meeting experience that is being virtualized is the face-to-face portion. How about being able to create sidebar conversations? Often two people can lean towards each other in a meeting and have a quick conversation; it would be ideal if two or more telepresence participants could break off into a quick session, discuss something and come back. True, you could use chat but that's not always the easiest.
Cisco has integrated WebEx for document and desktop sharing into its solution, but if you're on a single screen the system determines the size of each window. It would be ideal to flip between them and manipulate the windows easily. Ultimately I see sharing of documents and data being done on a tablet, and the video on a screen.
I'm sure there are many other areas to focus on to enhance the meeting experience with things like real time scanning for sharing paper notes, better integration with white boards, business card scanners, things like that.
The other area both companies should focus on is the overall lifecycle of a meeting. Cisco's last WebEx release addressed this a little for web conferences, but the same thing could be done for telepresence as well. This could include things like easier recording capabilities, uploading into Show and Share, tagging of people, content and an easier way to manage them. There's a definite lifecycle around meetings; current telepresence addresses the "in process" meetings, and the solutions from Polycom and Cisco need to extend to the pre- and post-meeting experience.
So are the telepresence business units for Polycom and Cisco in trouble, as the article would suggest? Certainly if they remain as is, but I still think there is tremendous amount of innovation to be done by both companies to stay ahead of the competitive curve.