Cisco protocol promises telepresence interoperability


A lack of interoperability between different systems has been one of the barriers preventing videoconferencing and telepresence from being widely adopted in the enterprise.

There’s nothing worse that the person on the left screen on one system appearing on the right screen of another, for example, or having the audio scrambled.

On Tuesday Cisco Systems Inc. said it has taken a step toward solving that problem by releasing a royalty-free open standards-based interoperability protocol for multi-screen videoconferencing.

It has offered to license the protocol for nothing to hardware and software manufacturers. The first to sign are videoconferencing manufacturer Tandberg SA (which Cisco is in the middle of buying), video gateway manufacturer Radvision (a Cisco partner) and Lifesize Communications Inc., a maker of desktop video solutions now owned by Logitec International.

Not on the list are two of the biggest names in telepresence, Polycom Ltd. and Hewlett-Packard.

Two industry analysts contacted by Network World Canada were cautiously optimistic about the announcement because they haven’t seen the protocol in use to say if it can truly be used by many vendors.

Ira Weinstein of Wainhouse Research noted that Cisco’s solution can only be used on SIP-based videoconferencing systems like its own, which excludes systems using only the H.323 standard.

“Other vendors will have to some tweaks to be able to accommodate,” he said.

But, he added, “this is a good first step. We believe the other vendors will be motivated to co-operate with Cisco, because they (Cisco) do have a commanding presence in telepresence.” There will probably be other video interoperability methods from other manufacturers, he added.

Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of enterprise research at the Yankee Group was disappointed Polycom isn’t one of the licencees. There might be a technical hurdle for Polycom to overcome, he said, but he believes it wouldn’t be hard.

“SIP is becoming the defacto communications standard,” he added, “so Polycom is going to have to go down that route sooner or later.”

A spokesman for Polycom said Tuesday afternoon the company was about to release its quarterly financials and couldn’t comment on the Cisco announcement.

Similarly, Cisco was in a quiet period and couldn’t furnish an executive with details on the protocol.

 “We believe that the Telepresence Interoperability Protocol, new experiences and new endpoints will enable many more organizations and people to transform global business,” Charles Stucki, vice president and general manager of Cisco’s TelePresence Systems business unit, said in a news release.

In a response to an e-mailed question on whether other manufacturers had been approached to sign on, David Hsieh, Cisco’s vice president of marketing, emerging technologies wrote that the company contacted all major telepresence systems providers. “Over time we expect that TIP evolves under the auspices of industry standards bodies,” he added.

Weinstein said Cisco’s approach modifies the SIP headers of a telepresence stream to tell a video system where to place each of the multiple images – in effect synchronizing audio and video.

Telepresence – big screens that give a life-like sense to videoconferencing – has been touted by manufacturers as a vital need for businesses. One of the key hopes of enterprises is that it can interoperate with existing conferencing systems, Wienstein said, as well with other telepresence systems. However, that was an early challenge for most systems because initially vendors preferred to keep their systems proprietary. That’s been a knock against Cisco, because it’s a videoconferencing market leader.

But, as Kerravala says, “without interoperability, video(conferencing) is fool’s gold.”

When organizations realize they can’t link to who they want, the systems go unused.

Slowly, the industry has been changing, including Cisco. “They have been improving their interoperability over time,” Weinstein acknowledged, because customers demanded it. For example, Cisco in addition to supporting SIP it also supports the H.323 protocol.

“At least Cisco’s making an effort,” Kerravala said, “which is more than you can say for the rest of industry sometimes.”

“Let’s give Cisco some kudos here for at least drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Let’s interop, already,’” Weinstein said. “Everybody else has been dancing around this topic.”

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