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Tough road for telepresence standards

While industry standards exist to enable interoperability, telepresence equipment vendors typically add extensions not covered by the standards to gain competitive advantage, notes industry analyst.
Written by Liau Yun Qing, Contributor

Efforts to differentiate from the competition are rendering industry standards ineffective and hindering interoperability between multi-branded telepresence systems, according to an industry analyst.

Pranabesh Nath, Asia Pacific industry manager for collaboration and unified communications at Frost & Sullivan, explained that "in theory", standards can be established and managed by an independent body to help different telepresence systems interoperate.

However, in practice, vendors will still want to add in-built extensions to these standards to stand out and gain competitive advantage, Nath told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail. For example, market players will introduce an extension so that their system can perform a certain function not addressed by the industry standard, he said, adding that this was what had transpired for previous standards established for videoconferencing.

Stefan Karapetkov, emerging technologies director at Polycom, said the teleconferencing equipment provider had built systems that could interoperate with telepresence offerings from competitor Tandberg, but the latter had implemented proprietary elements that reduces the level of quality if the video stream does not go through the Tandberg Telepresence Server.

Nath noted that one vendor's extension will eventually win out and be adopted within the actual industry standard, but said this process will usually take several years.

He added that the main attraction of telepresence is the "immersive quality" that users experience and this has to be carefully engineered by system designers through camera positions, lighting and color schemes.

"Once systems from different manufacturers are required to interoperate, the immersive illusion is lost and customers will question the premium they have paid," he said.

Developing interoperability in telepresence

Mark Gorzynski, chief scientist of Halo at Hewlett-Packard, said in an e-mail that telepresence is still an emerging area so companies prefer to apply existing standards in their own ways.

He explained that there are three approaches to encourage interoperability:

1. Build company-specific non-standard technology.
While some technologies are openly licensed, the use of licensed company-specific technology is a short-term stop-gap measure that allows vendors to build interoperating bridges between systems.

2. Enable coordination on open standards developed by accredited bodies.
Open standards are a much better long-term solution than company-specific technologies, Gorzynski said.

3. Enable coordination on deployment of standards-based technologies.
While developing open standards is important, he said the industry must go further and collaborate with companies on the deployment of standards. Gorzynski noted that standards can be interpreted in many different ways so coordination is essential to ensure seamless interoperability.

Cisco to open source telepresence tech

One market player, Cisco Systems, on Jul. 1 will release its Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP)--touted to ensure interoperability between non-Cisco and Cisco products--based on an open source model. Gorzynski described such open source efforts as the first step toward driving interoperability.

Cisco in January availed the TIP as a royalty-free license.

Releasing the protocol to an independent industry body was also a condition set by the European Commission for Cisco's acquisition of Tandberg.

According to Frederick Chen, Cisco's Asia business video solutions marketing manager, the company is preparing to transfer ownership of the TIP to the International Multimedia Teleconferencing Consortium (IMTC).

"Licensing this technology can accelerate the overall support and adoption of telepresence solutions and make them as ubiquitous as telephones," Chen said in an e-mail interview.

However, David Molony, principal analyst at research firm Ovum, dubbed the EU's move "strange" and noted that it would likely help make Cisco the de facto industry standard.

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Molony said Cisco had previously been slow in joining industry cooperation, despite the fact that the company had helped raise the profile of telepresence when it launched its Cisco TelePresence system in 2006.

He explained that it was only when it became "obvious" Cisco was not going to dominate the telepresence market that the vendor participate in industry efforts.

The Ovum analyst said industry players now recognize that they risk losing out on opportunities in unified communications if they adopted a proprietary approach in the telepresence space.

According to Frost & Sullivan, the Asia-Pacific telepresence market will grow 64.4 percent by end-2010 to reach revenues of over US$73 million.

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