Cisco and LifeSize court thrifty videoconferencing customers

Wednesday was a good day for people who want to use high-end videoconferencing but can’t afford a full-scale Cisco TelePresence meeting room.

Not only did Cisco announce the opening of public TelePresence suites in London and Boston, available for US$299 to $899 per hour, but rival LifeSize expanded its line of meeting systems that undercut Cisco’s prices.

The timing was excellent, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling another 733 points on Wall Street Wednesday and credit hard to find, IDC analyst Nora Freedman noted. Cisco’s TelePresence systems range in list price from $34,900 to $349,000 per installation.

A new generation of products from LifeSize, ranging from two-seat to six-seat configurations, cost just $10,999 to $49,999.

But in addition, the company is taking a different approach from Cisco’s focus on dedicated rooms with special furniture and lighting. Users can set up its systems anywhere they want, with any high-definition display they choose, according to CTO Casey King. LifeSize systems also are designed to work over the open Internet with relatively slow connections, he said.

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On Wednesday, the company introduced the LifeSize Team 200, Room 200 and three-screen Conference 200. They can be ordered now and are scheduled to begin shipping in the first half of November.

The Room 200 and Conference 200 are new versions of systems for two participants or six participants per room. They bump up the available resolution from 30 frames per second at 720p (720 lines of resolution, progressively scanned) to 30 fps at 1080p. These models also come with a new setting that can boost quality over a relatively narrow Internet pipe. Whereas a LifeSize Room 200 setup requires 1.7M bps (bits per second) for the full 1080p resolution, the two systems now come with the option of 720p video, but at twice the normal frame rate, or 60 fps. This can work with a connection of only 1.1M bps. The higher frame rate also makes movement seem more natural, with less blurring, because motions such as a hand waving are captured on more frames, King said. The lowest setting, 720p at 30 fps, is also available and takes a 768K-bps link.

The Room 200 starts at $16,999 and the Conference 200 at $49,999. An integrated MCU (multipoint control unit) can save users more money, according to King. This component allows for conferences among different types of systems with lower and higher levels of sound and image quality. It allows participants to join in on a lower-quality endpoint without dragging those on better systems down to the lowest common denominator, he said. External MCUs normally cost about $100,000.

The LifeSize Team, a completely new product, works at 720p with 30 frames per second and offers the lowest price of the new line, at $10,999.

In an interview on Tuesday, Cisco’s Marthin De Beer, senior vice president and general manager of the Emerging Technologies Group, downplayed lower-priced competition and the value to users of setting up conference units wherever they like. A good experience is paramount, because poor quality is what held back adoption of videoconferencing before high-quality video and audio became available, he said. Cisco’s platforms support 1080p at 30 frames per second, though they can step down to lower quality to accommodate weaker connections, De Beer said.

Cisco did achieve a breakthrough in late 2006 with its introduction of TelePresence, which transformed the perception of videoconferencing, IDC’s Freedman said. LifeSize has been selling products for three years, and others have been in the market even longer.

“I don’t think that LifeSize would have been able to capitalize on the market without being able to piggyback on the marketing Cisco has done,” she said.

IDC has projected total telepresence revenue from all vendors to grow from $72 million in 2007 to $1 billion in 2011. There is a market for both Cisco’s type of systems and LifeSize’s more flexible gear, though the current tough times may cause a “hiccup” in that growth, Freedman said.

The advent of less-expensive options such as the improved LifeSize products and Cisco’s public suites gives potential users some ways to ease in to the technology, something that will be especially welcome now, she said.