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Video Interoperability: Now or Never?


An interoperability graphic
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The virtual edition of Enterprise Connect 2020 was held last week and was kicked off by an analyst panel of Melissa Swartz, Jim Burton, and myself opining about the industry (which you can watch on demand here). The topic, “Are Today’s Transformations the Model for the Long Term?” was a bit of a catch-all, but we focused primarily on technologies that have seen a boost since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the topics that generated a lot of interest in the chat window was video conferencing. This is one of the segments of the UC market that has seen an explosion in usage, as we all seem to spend most of our day Zooming, Webexing, Avaya Spacing, or using some other video format. One of the questions that came up is one that seemingly does every year, and that’s when we might have video interoperability. This is an excellent question as the myriad of video platform limits the technology’s usefulness.
In actuality, we do have video calling today — sort of. For example, someone could call a Poly video unit from a Cisco system if they know the SIP URI. If your name is Javed Khan, Cisco SVP and GM of Webex, or Tom Puorro, executive VP and GM at Poly, you can figure that out, but the average user certainly can’t. I would guess that the typical worker doesn’t even know how to make a SIP call from their video end point or even know what their SIP URI is.
However, even if you manage to do a Poly to Cisco call, the basic audio and video will work as will anything built into the SIP standard, which isn’t much. A few advanced features will also work if they are part of the device. For example, Cisco’s new Desk Pro has background blur and reframing integrated into the unit, and those will work. Recently, I did a Zoom call from my Desk Pro, and the virtual background and reframing worked fine. However, I didn’t get the advanced features of the software, stack such as whiteboarding, transcriptions, etc.
This is why interoperability remains such a struggle. Video vendors are always looking to one-up each other with advanced features, as that’s where differentiation and a price premium are created. For example, Poly has several unique capabilities such as auto-mute, acoustic fence, and its EagleEye camera is loaded with differentiated features. These things won’t work across systems. Clearly, we want interoperability now! Or do we?
This is an interesting question. Is interoperability really something we want? In theory, it would be nice if I could sit down and turn on my Poly device and call Dave Michels who has a Cisco Desk Pro. The odds of that happening are slim and none, and slim has saddled up his horse and heading out of town. This would require the standards bodies to come together and agree on both hardware and software standards. I asked Khan about this, and he echoed that: “Until a global standard emerges, mixed hardware and software environments will have difficulty delivering easy experiences beyond basic video interoperability. This is where platform vendors that ship both software and hardware will have an advantage for delivering advanced use cases. However, beyond basic video interoperability is possible today with WebRTC.”
That last statement is geared towards Cisco, but Khan is correct. Cisco’s differentiation has always come from its ability to create this end-to-end experience. Microsoft and Zoom rely on partners such as Poly and Logitech to build endpoints that run their software. Poly has excelled at this, particularly since the arrival of Puorro, who has cleaned up the way development is done. They now have devices interoperability with RingCentral, Zoom, Microsoft, and others with more coming. I asked Puorro about interoperability, and he confirmed my thesis that it would limit innovation. “Differentiation has always come from pre-standard innovation,” he stated. But the heavy lifting to run multiple vendor software stacks on their hardware is being done by Poly engineering.
Consider other markets where interoperability has existed, like the PC market. There are well-defined standards on components, so I can buy an ASUS motherboard and plug in an AMD or Intel processor. The problem for the PC industry is that price has become a big differentiator, so manufacturers chase down the lowest priced components. Therefore, many low-cost laptops and desktops have subpar cameras, mics, speakers, processors. If one spends $400 on a Windows machine, they either buy another in a year or live with a terrible experience. Juxtapose this with a $3,000 Mac, where the lifespan tends to be years.
In some ways, WebRTC and software clients act as a form of “light” interoperability. I can sit at my desk and do a Chime meeting, then a Zoom, and then a Webex back-to-back and not skip a beat because of the software clients. I’m limited on extended capabilities, such as auto framing and whiteboarding, because of device limitations, but it can work. In fact, for most home workers that do one to two calls a day, the “good enough” experience is fine. If you’re a power user that does video from 7 am to 7 pm, day-after-day, a dedicated unit will give you a better experience and reduce audio and video fatigue.
I don’t believe the video industry will have video interoperability — at least not in my lifetime. This sentiment was echoed by fellow Canadian Kevin Kieller, who stated in the chat window during the panel that he didn’t think we would ever have it.
So, if you’re in corporate IT and waiting for video interoperability, stop waiting. Pick a platform and stick with it. Because it’s not standards-based, the industry is moving very fast, so ensure you have a complete understanding of the vendor’s roadmap. Make that platform available as your company’s primary video solution. For workers that are light video users, the PC-based client with integrated speakers and mic should be fine. You could consider upgrading to an external camera and mic for better quality. For heavy video users, a dedicated unit that doubles as a second screen would be optimal, so the worker can look at content and do video at the same time. If there is a need to do a call that’s not using the chosen platform, use the software client or WebRTC version made available.