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What Does Cisco's Acquisition of Tandberg Mean for Video Conferencing Standards?

Cisco announced last night that they will be acquiring Tandberg, one of the top two video conferencing companies providing interoperable video conferencing solutions (the other is Polycom). There has been an ongoing marketing battle in the video conferencing space ever since Cisco introduced their Telepresence solutions because Cisco's solutions are not directly compatible with those of the rest of the market, which are largely based on the ITU H.323 standard.Cisco's size and marketing weight has led many observers to question if there is enough market pressure to bring Cisco around to meeting the standards. Cisco's position has been that they built their systems to optimize the user experience and threw all their technology in that direction since the previous generations of video conferencing were not widely accepted as a general business communications tool. Cisco also provides a gateway product, based on the RadVision MCU that will interconnect an H.323 system with the Cisco Telepresence environment, although not at the best image quality levels.

So now Cisco is buying one of the standards compliant players; what does this mean? Does it mean that Cisco has seen the light and wants to shift their approach over to be compatible with the rest of the industry? The combined weights of their key customers who are using H.323 have had enough influence to make them move?

Or it could mean that Cisco just wants the technology that Tandberg has developed for room-based and personal video conferencing solutions? Tandberg has an impressive HD-video capable desktop solution, and Tandberg has an impressive Multipoint Conferencing Unit (MCU) from their earlier acquisition of Codian. Cisco has neither of these technologies in the market, and may be looking to get there quickly.

But back to standards. Here is what I think. I think that the days of the H.323 standard are slipping by, and that we are moving rapidly towards a new set of standards that are ill defined as yet. The standards compliant vendors today all produce video endpoints that not only speak H.323 but also speak SIP, which is a step in the right direction. But there is much more to come.

Traditionally video conferencing has been a standalone application, with a separate team managing it, providing services to the management teams of enterprise companies. The big shift going forward is that video will become just another mode of communications connected to a Unified Communications (UC) infrastructure. Today we regularly start a conversation by checking presence, then a chat with IM and if faster communications is required we upgrade to voice. Video will soon become just the next higher level of communications in this media chain. So rather than being a standalone application, it will be integrated into the UC environment. We already see this today in Internet solutions like Google Video and Skype Video.

So what will be the standards? One part of the standards will be integrating closely with the major UC vendors, which video vendors like Tandberg and Polycom are already actively pursuing. Cisco is one of those UC vendors, so you can guess that the Tandberg/Cisco UC integration will happen quickly and be well integrated.

The new standards will be those that evolve around the UC environment including presence, authentication and authorization and interactions between the application and the network to manage bandwidth. Cisco is certain to be a big player in helping set those standards. Cisco has never been shy about sending their teams in force to the standards meetings to push their requirements forward.

Most of what I reference above is really about the signaling standards. In addition there needs to be compatibility between the transport streams as well. Today the major players are all encoding with H.264, including Cisco. A couple of smaller players are now encoding with H.264 SVC which has some promising new attributes especially for desktop-based conferencing. Cisco has licensed the H.264 SVC technology and likely has developments underway. I think we will see a shift to this approach as well, especially in the desktop area because the technology scales better and works better than the traditional approaches when running in a less-than-perfect network.