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Tue 16 Oct 2007 02:34 PM

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The business of presence

Cisco is the latest vendor to launch a high-end video conferencing system for ME with its TelePresence solution.

"Good morning. How is the weather outside?," said Andrew Elder, MD of enterprise and advanced technology at Cisco.

"Well, not too good. There's a sandstorm out there," said one of the journalists lined around the semi-circular table.

It could have been the start of any other press conference, but it was not.

Last week, Cisco in the region demonstrated the capabilities of its newly launched video conferencing system, TelePresence, to a select group of journalists. Elder was in Amsterdam while the press grouped around the company's system in its Dubai office.

The idea was to get across the near real-life experience that Cisco's system can create for businesses while collaborating and communicating across multiple offices. During the conference, the company's spokespeople enforced the user-friendliness of the system and the potential travel and associated costs it could save an enterprise when installed and used across multiple sites.

The system itself consists of 65" plasma screens, a fixed position camera and discrete microphones for permanent installation at client sites. The TelePresence 3000 consists of three screens, while the TelePresence 1000 is the more basic model with just one screen. Up to 12 people, six in each site, can be included in a meeting at a time.

The company was quick to point out that it has been using TelePresence internally for some time now, with over 100 offices having a version of the system, and that the solution is projected to save US$240 million in three years counting from October 2006.

Cisco is the latest organisation to be pushing an ‘experience' with video conferencing equipment (in other words, people across two remote sites feel like they are conversing across a single table in the same room). Polycom has a very similar product in its RealPresence system. Both Cisco and Polycom stress that to get a true experience, companies would need to dedicate a room to the system and work on the acoustics within that room. Consequently, implementation times for the system can range from two weeks to a month depending on how well-adpated the chosen room is.

The claims of an experience might be true; but it does come with a hefty price tag. Cisco's TelePresence 3000 across two sites can cost around $500,000. Polycom's RealPresence is also billed to be around the million-dollar mark and above. This is just the system; to ensure proper usage, the enterprise would need a stable IP telephony system, a robust back-end network along with a dedicated leased line for bandwidth.

Being the networking behemoth it is, Cisco carries a distinct advantage in that it can bundle TelePresence with some of its existing infrastructure products. In fact, the company firmly stresses that TelePresence is a part of its unified communications suite.

Nevertheless, these high-end enterprise conferencing systems raise questions of relevance. The first is how much of savings can these systems actually make to regional enterprises in the short and long term? Considering the huge capital investment it requires, these solutions would need to offer substantial RoI in as soon a time as possible to make them reasonable investments for organisations.

Also, while it makes sense for a global enterprise like Cisco to use it internally, how many regional firms can count themselves in the league of having geographically-dispersed sites and personnel who require regular meetings? How many of these would be ready to dedicate precious office space to create a room for conferencing? For most regional enterprises, which have a few remote sites and which might need to hold a conference say on a monthly basis, solutions like Sony seem like a more logical choice, since it ties in with existing IP cameras at the location and does not need as high a principal investment as called for by Cisco's or Polycom's systems.

With no real statistics available on the kind of travel costs that regional enterprises incur, an almost real life experience in conferencing is all great, but if it demands big dollars, potentially calls for infrastructural changes and pays back on investment slowly, not many enterprises will be rushing to knock down vendor doors.

One thing is for sure. With big names like Cisco entering the fray, the nascent video conferencing equipment market in the region can definitely look forward to some exciting times.

Do you think solutions like TelePresence and RealPresence make sense in the regional market? If you are a large enterprise with remote sites in the region and around the globe, would you invest in the solution? Please write in to with your thoughts on the video conferencing market in the region.

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