The visionaries and the evangelists at vendors like Cisco, Polycom, HP Halo et al would have you believe that the immersive experience of telepresence videoconferencing will eliminate some if not almost all of the need for business travel as the technology is adopted more broadly across the globe. The need for face-to-face meetings among business partners and between corporate branches will decrease as companies realize that telepresence is a feasible alternative to face-to-face meetings in many if not most circumstances.
The notion that telepresence could reduce business travel should be bad news to the travel industry, right? Business travel is bread and butter for airlines and hotels.
And yet, hotel chains appear to be embracing the technology. Both Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Casinos have opened public telepresence rooms in a couple of pilot locations this month, both using Cisco’s TelePresence technology. Mariott has opened rooms in New York City and Bethesda, Md., and plans to open at least a dozen more across the U.S. and Europe, China and Brazil. Starwood opened rooms at its W Chicago City Center and at its Sheraton on the Park in Sydney, Australia. It has plans to open more rooms in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles this summer.
Mary Casey, vice president of corporate global sales at Starwood, told me her company was prompted to install telepresence rooms in its hotels after speaking with large corporate customers who were looking to reduce their travel costs. She said one of Starwood’s largest customers in Chicago said told her that it had been investing in telepresence rooms across the world, but there were certain regional hubs where it wasn’t practical for the company to make an investment in the technology because a company-owned telepresence room in such locations wouldn’t be used enough to justify the investment.
Casey says that large corporate clients, especially those who have invested in telepresence in certain locations, are the main targets of her hotels’ telepresence rooms. She said smaller companies haven’t expressed much interest in such services yet. However, she thinks that might just be a matter of educating the market on the experience the technology can offer. She also expects some non-corporate clients to use the technology, based on what she’s heard from Tata Communications, Starwood’s technology services partner in the telepresence venture.
“If we listen to our partners at Tata, they’re beginning to see their public telepresence offerings used by different segments, such as suites used by families who are spread around the world, who want to celebrate events like a birthday party,” she said.
Casey and Starwood clearly see telepresence as an opportunity, not a threat. Perhaps someday some hotels will have just as many telepresence rooms as they do beds.
Now airlines, on the other hand — I don’t see them adapting quite as well.
The Cisco/Tandberg acquisition catapulted the video conferencing and telepresence market into a competitive frenzy. Don’t expect this rivalrous race to slow down any time soon.
Shortly after Cisco brought Tandberg into the fold, Logitech acquired LifeSize, and earlier this month, Radvision announced plans to acquire Aethra.
Incumbent Polycom quickly mobilized with a counteroffensive play, hyper-focusing on a strategy to retain their current market share and pull customers away from the monolithic Cisco. Forging new partnerships, cultivating deep alliances with existing partners and an aggressive focus on product development is Polycom’s core strategy.
Agito Networks is mostly known for its dual-mode fixed-mobile convergence solutions, helping enterprise get their mobile phones off the cellular network and tied into a corporate PBX via Wi-Fi networks.
This week Agito came out with something slightly new that is targeted at a very specific, yet pricey problem faced by many companies which do international business.
Many corporate telecom and mobility managers today probably support executives who travel internationally and need to buy a temporary international roaming plan for their smartphones while on the road. These short-term voice roaming minutes are pricey. We’re talking more than $1 per minute in many cases. If you have a lot of guys on the road, this can get out of hand fast.
This week Agito announced Agito Global Enterprise, a feature in the 4.0 release of its RoamAnywhere routers and clients. This feature will automatically handover voice calls from an international cellular voice network and convert it into a VoIP call over a 3G data connection. Since most short-term international roaming plans offer relatively lower flat fees in the range of $20 or $30 for a unlimited data, this could be a huge savings for mobile employees who are traveling overseas. A $20 flat fee is a bargain compared to the $300-$400 a worker might rack up in talk time with a typical arrangement.
Late last month Pejman Roshan, founder and chief marketing officer for Agito, visited my office and gave me a demo of the cellular to VoIP handover on both a BlackBerry 9700 and an iPhone, both of which Agito also now supports as of this week. The voice quality was on par with what you might expect from either device, although there was a probably a half-second of latency in the call. Roshan attributed this to the fact that we were using a custom built demo version. The production version won’t be available until next month.
Image from Technodorm.com
We love our smartphones. It’s understandable, this unique attachment we have to our intelligent devices. The familiar, comforting glow of the LCD screen. The soothing pulse of a blinking message light. Smartphones have become indespensible for both consumer and business use.
I use mine as an alarm clock, a GPS system, a camera, a video camera, an MP3 player, a calendar, oh, and I even place and receive calls with it. I check and respond to text messages, voicemail, email, Facebook and Twitter. I won’t even mention the available smartphone apps. We all know there’s an app for everything, if not, it’s coming soon. Check back tomorrow.
For personal use, they are indispensible. As a business tool, these pocket-sized powerhouses equip on-the-go employees with the power of a laptop. People not only use smartphones to access multimodal messages, they use smartphones to store and retrieve valuable records and files.
The smartphone won’t push the laptop into extinction any time soon, primarily because of its size. However, with Bluetooth and USB keyboard add ons and wireless connectivity to a larger external display, such as a hotel TV, smartphones could be accountable for dustier laptops in the near future.
Smartphone security becomes a bigger issue as employees use smartphones as an adjunct to the laptop or PC, as does the management of these mobile devices. Remote lock/wipe functions are available for lost or stolen phones. Anti-virus client applications, firewalls and back up can help safeguard proprietary or sensitive data. Fingerprint sensors are becoming increasingly popular as an added measure of security.
Cisco Systems’ acquisition of videoconferencing vendor Tandberg is driving Cisco’s rivals to Polycom, just as we expected.
When we reported on the Cisco-Tandberg deal in October, Ira Weinstein, senior analyst with Wainhouse Research, told us that the acquisition would force other unified communications and telephony vendors to embrace Polycom in an effort to differentiate their own enterprise video strategies.
Siemens Enterprise Communications made its move this month, announcing a new videoconferencing alliance with Polycom. As Mike Vizard at CTOEdge pointed out, Tandberg had been Siemens’ go-to partner on video solutions prior to the Cisco-Tandberg deal. Siemens will continue to support Tandberg products with its OpenScape UC products, but Polycom is now its preferred partner.
Yesterday, Polycom picked up an infrastructure partner, too, when it announced a deal with Juniper Networks. In mid-2010, the two companies will release updates to their products that will allow service providers to optimize their networks for Polycom videoconferencing products.
Stacey Higginbotham over at GigaOM says that Juniper’s partnership with Polycom won’t work.
I’m not sure that Juniper and Polycom are an ideal match, mostly because tying the product to the networking gear is a strategy that ultimately follows along with Cisco’s aims. As a smaller rival to Cisco, Juniper can’t win by playing by the same rules as the larger company — it needs to break them.
Regardless of whether Juniper and Polycom’s new alliance works, it’s clear that Cisco’s acquisition of Tandberg has Cisco’s rivals in multiple markets looking to work with Polycom. Not only are other UC and telephony vendors embracing Polycom. Rival network infrastructure vendors are cuddling up to them as well. Competition in the videoconferencing market is alive and well.
While little is recession proof, unified communications (UC) has managed to skirt ground zero of the global economic free fall. In a survey recently conducted by SearchUnifiedCommunications.com, over 50% of respondents expect to spend more on UC in 2010 than they did last year.
Newly published research from Infonetics Research show businesses are investing in communications with shipments of communicator clients increasing almost 1,000% between the first half of 2008 and the first half of 2009.
According to our survey, the top drivers for UC adoption are:
- Increased productivity
- Operational and business process improvement
- Real-time connectivity
- Providing mobile support to employees
Though budget is consistently an obstacle to deploying new technologies, our survey respondents also reported that they simply don’t know enough about available UC options to move forward. While we can’t augment your budgets, we can provide you with the resources you need to better understand unified communications technologies and help you map out a solid ROI strategy.
For starters, here are the top five unified communications issues you can expect in 2010.
Blogger Greg Ferro (Etherealmind.com) claimed last week that the days of the IP PBX are numbered. It’s hard to argue with him. The IP PBX – all PBXes, really – will go away. The only question is when?
As Ferro points out, the original value proposition of the PBX is losing its appeal.
The PBX, or Private Branch eXhange, was designed to save a company money. It allowed employees to call other desks in a company without routing the call through the telecom provider’s network. The PBX also made people more productive by allowing them to communicate and collaborate more freely.
Nowadays, how often do you pick up your deskphone and call someone else in your office? Wouldn’t you rather send them an email or an IM or open up a video chat with them?
Heck, I don’t even give out my office number anymore. I hand my Google Voice number and set it to ring wherever I am (office, home, iPhone). The only “value” I get from my PBX is voicemail. And I’d prefer to receive voicemails in my email inbox rather than dial into the PBX.
Ferro points out that the future of the PBX is as a presence server. Rather than routing phone calls, the presence server will tell users whether people are available for a conversation and how you can reach them (email, IM, phone, etc). The server will also hold all your message, regardless of the medium.
Most vendors clearly see that this is on the horizon. See Cisco’s acquisition of Jabber, Microsoft’s Office Communications Server strategy and IBM’s Sametime strategy.
In my view, it’s not a question of if the PBX will go away, but when. Any shift away from the PBX paradigm will lead to a broader and deeper dependence on mobile phones. And mobile phones are still relatively expensive in the United States. I spend four or five hours a day on the phone. If I did all that on my iPhone, I’d blow up my minutes.
So this would require not just a big technological shift, but also a philosophical shift for business leaders. Most enterprises still adhere to the strategic deployment of mobile devices. They hand BlackBerrys to sales teams and top executives and leave the rest of the company tied to their desks.
A world without PBXes would require a big shift in thinking, and this will take time. Have you ever tried to convince the CFO that you need to give the mail room manager an iPhone?
Unless you’re a Mitel customer or a Canadian, you’re probably not all that interested in Mitel’s plans for a $230-million initial public offering. However, if the IPO goes well, Ottawa-based Mitel could have some capital to make some moves in 2010 and beyond. Mitel will use capital from the IPO to settle some debts, but the company said it will also look to make some acquisitions with the money.
Avaya’s acquisition of Nortel’s enterprise division means that a lot of enterprises are re-evaluating their voice and UC infrastructure these days. Cisco and Avaya remain at the top of the heap, but smaller players like Siemens and Mitel will undoubtedly try to take advantage of the inevitable churn that will follow Nortel’s exit from the market. For the first time in many years, Nortel customers are shopping for a new vendor. Nortel customers will be wined-and-dined at VoiceCon Orlando in a couple months, that’s for sure.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at some highlights of what Mitel has been up to in the world of UC in recent years.
- Last June Mitel announced a strategic collaboration with VMware to make its UC products “VMware-ready.” To date, not many companies feel comfortable with virtualizing their voice and communications infrastructure, but the desire is there. Avaya and Alcatel-Lucent are also making strong progress here.
- Mitel has been collaborating with Sun Microsystems for a couple of years on integrating its UC applications with Sun’s Sun Ray thin client technology. By OEMing Sun Ray, Mitel offers companies the ability to mobilize employees within a corporate campus. Users can use a smart card to plug into any thin client on a campus and get full UC functionality wherever they go.
- Last spring Mitel advanced its fixed-mobile convergence capabilities with a new “hot-desking” feature in its Series X UC application portfolio, giving it a offering comparable to leaders like Avaya and Cisco.
- In 2007, Mitel bought Inter-Tel, a Delaware-based provider of managed network and communications services. This $700-million deal boosted Mitel’s market presence in North America significantly.
Cisco finally managed to win over enough of Tandberg’s shareholders to complete its takeover of the enterprise video company. Cisco had stipulated that it would only move ahead with the acquisition if it could gain 90% of Tandberg’s stock, apparently because Norwegian law requires all shareholders to sell once 90% of the shares have been voluntarily sold to a buyer.
- Why was this deal so hard for Cisco to close? Answer: It’s complicated. Reuters’ DealTalk has a nice rundown on the confluence of complicated factors that nearly scuttled this deal. For one thing, there were cultural issues. Apparently Scandinavian investors (Tandberg is a Norwegian company) are not bashful about kicking up a fuss when they feel aggrieved. And Cisco might have overplayed its hand by talking up the so-called synergies and business opportunities that a combined Cisco-Tandberg would enjoy. This talk may have prompted the holdout shareholders to demand more money. On the other hand, Peter Germonpre of Panta Capital told Reuters that Cisco may have been clever and low-balled Tandberg early on in an effort to keep the final price low. Also, many Tandberg shareholders were reluctant to give up their shares because they like the diversity in their stock portfolio that a successful local tech company represents. Folketrygdfondet, a Norwegian company that manages the the investments of the government’s employee pension funds, was a major holdout. Pension fund investors love diversity.
- The U.S. Justice Department is now looking at the Cisco-Tandberg transaction from an antitrust perspective. I’m not sure that this investigation will go anywhere. Cisco’s videoconferencing business was limited to the very high end with its Telepresence products. Yes, it has bought a telepresence competitor, but Tandberg is not a telepresence company. It is an enterprise video company. There were two major players in enterprise video before this deal (Tandberg and Polycom) and there are two major players in the market after this deal (Cisco and Polycom).
- A tax shelter for Cisco? As the New York Times Dealbook blog notes, Cisco has piles of cash sitting overseas with its international subsidiaries. Dealbook says that by buying Tandberg, Cisco gets to avoid paying taxes on the $3.4 billion it spent in the deal. I’m not a tax lawyer, so I don’t know how it works. But avoiding paying taxes on $3.4 billion seems like a good deal for Cisco, not so much for the U.S. Treasury.
Dear Tandberg shareholders: Will you or won’t you make Cisco the happiest and most powerful videoconferencing vendor in the world?
This acquisition of Tandberg sure has drama, doesn’t it? Here it is, early evening on Dec. 3 and there’s still no word as to whether Cisco has acquired the requisite number of shares it set for itself to close the deal. Cisco’s agreement to buy Tandberg includes the provision that the deal can only happen if Cisco can get hold of 90% of Tandberg’s stock. As of yesterday, Cisco had only managed to collect commitments from shareholders to take over 84% of the stock. If Cisco can’t get to 90%, the deal won’t happen and Cisco will walk away. Cisco has extended the deadline for reaching the 90% threshold a coulpe of times, but it said yesterday that tdoay was the final extension. The clock was to run out at 5:30 PM CET (Central European Time), which passed us by hours ago.
Yet we have no news. Cisco and Tandberg have been silent on whether they were able to get this done. We haven’t heard much at all since Cisco upped its offer from $3 billion to $3.41 billion to entice some holdout shareholders who felt the original offer undervalued Tandberg.
Here we are, with not a peep from Cisco and Tandberg. Are executives working the phones, trying to figure out whether this deal? Or have they decided to let the silence speak for itself and the deal is dead. We shall see.