Telepresence - time to work together

Quocirca's Straight Talking: For the good of all

Quocirca's Straight Talking: For the good of all

Tired of your comms kit not working well with others? Quocirca's Simon Perry says it's time to push for compatibility in the telepresence space.

The technology world is no stranger to the emergence of competing standards - from Blu-ray versus HD DVD, to VHS versus Betamax. Eventually the market chooses a winner which goes on to enjoy accelerated market adoption.

Those users who made the wrong bet hopefully find themselves supported by the winning vendor, with a relatively smooth migration path from what they currently have, to the new de-facto standard. However, if the technology in question is physically of a different form factor (such as Betamax versus VHS), then tough luck - you're left with a lump of fairly useless kit that quickly depreciates in value.

It is clear the best scenario from a customer point of view is for there to be interoperability between competing technologies.

In some cases, compatibility between competing solutions ends up being important for everyone.

What if, for example, neither Alexander Graham Bell nor Elisha Gray had won their 1870s legal battle over the patent rights for the invention of the telephone? The result might have been two different telephone networks, each based on differing technologies and almost certainly incompatible with each other.

Such a scenario would have hampered the uptake and usefulness of the emerging voice communications medium.

In short a communications medium that doesn't allow a user to freely call anyone else, anywhere, with no consideration to which vendor's technology the called party has chosen, is seriously flawed and potentially leaves tech buyers at a dead-end.

This brings us to the subject of telepresence. None of the major vendors in this space - Cisco, Tandberg/HP, Teliris and Polycom - exhibit much evidence of delivering interoperability in their products.

When speaking to Quocirca recently, the European head of HP's telepresence business downplayed the need for interoperability while talking up the technical challenges inherent in delivering such functionality.

Such sentiments are to be found regardless of which vendor is asked the question. The common response to questions about interoperability is: 'Not supported today, very difficult to deliver, not a priority right now.'

Such a response is indicative of the fact that all of the vendors are focused on the short term. They seem to believe there is enough revenue to be made from existing accounts and intra-company communications that they can turn a blind eye to the day when adoption of telepresence is widespread - and customers start to demand ubiquitous inter-company calling .

Telepresence adoption is often justified based on financial savings from avoiding travel and using software to communicate instead, with perhaps a passing nod to the 'green' benefits of avoiding the associated greenhouse-gas emissions. This is a message that is particularly relevant given the recession, and the resulting cutbacks in op-ex spending.

Given that staff travel for internal meetings is always the first expense to be culled, it is not surprising that telepresence vendors see further revenue opportunities from incremental sales to existing accounts.

However, sensible businesses have always placed a higher priority on external communications over internal - for example between the sales teams and their customers. It only makes sense that over time companies will look to reduce external travel as well, whether for financial reasons or because of green concerns.

It doesn't make sense, however, to hope that those companies, which you may wish to 'tele-meet' with will happen to have the same brand of kit that your company invested in.

Right now the telepresence market must either demand interoperability - or be constrained to the detriment of all. We can but wish that once interoperability is given a high priority, the technical challenges involved in delivering it will be rapidly innovated away. Otherwise a lot of expensive kit is going to look like a lot of relatively useless junk.

What's the path forward?

It's reasonably likely that one of the smaller telepresence players may be acquired by either Cisco or HP, whether to bolster market share or to add some technical feature. Such a scenario still leaves the market in a mess, however: without interoperability there can be no unifying product migration path for the customers on either side of such an acquisition.

Even if eventually any one vendor gains sufficient overall market share for its technology to become the de-facto standard, the rest of the market is left high and dry. Interoperability is quite simply the key to both overall growth of the market as well as to long term support of existing customers.

Whether you are an existing customer, or you are considering your first use of telepresence technology, you must demand interoperability.

Given that this dream of interoperable products is certainly some way away, it is worth inserting into any contracts a clause that provides an 'out' in the event of M&A activity resulting in the sun-setting of your chosen solution without a reasonable product migration path.

Such a clause would likely be unpalatable to any vendor but is not without precedent in the history of the IT industry - and there is no surer way of turning up the heat on all telepresence vendors over the compatibility issue.

Perhaps then the issue will be given the attention it deserves, to the advantage of all concerned.

A leading user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture, Quocirca is made up of a team of experts in technology and its business implications. The team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth, Louella Fernandes, Fran Howarth and Simon Perry. Their series of columns for seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking. For a full summary of the consultancy's activities, see