telepresence

Cisco's new collaboration tools: Videoconferencing for the rest of us?

March 13, 2014: 2:05 PM ET

Forget Telepresence. The networking giant's new systems are intended for small- and medium-sized businesses.

140313140242-cisco-telepresence-midmarket-model-meeting-room-620xa

FORTUNE -- Cisco Systems (CSCO) has long realized that most companies don't have the need or the money to buy its pricey and bulky Telepresence technology, an elaborate videoconferencing system that combines 65-inch screens, cameras, integrated lighting, and even custom-made desks.

To push its collaboration wares into a wider range of corporate customers' conference rooms, the company is now launching a number of new videoconferencing products intended for businesses that are a bit smaller in size.

There's the SX10 for small and medium-sized businesses, which Cisco says costs "less than the price of a PC" and can be hooked up to any existing flat panel display and configured in 10 minutes or less. And the redesigned (and pricier) second-generation version of the MX200, a floor-standing system that combines a 42-inch screen with an HD camera geared for small conference rooms. There is also the MX700 and MX800, made for large-sized rooms.

(Does Cisco need to hire some product naming experts? Probably.)

MORE: The next tech revolution: Busting bureaucracy

The new products are a step in the right direction for Cisco, and not only because they offer a broader range of prices for businesspeople who want to buy videoconferencing capabilities but can't afford the flagship Telepresence system. Cisco says the systems are designed with consumers, not IT professionals, in mind -- meaning setup time is minimal and their appearance (rounded edges, gray in color) is reminiscent of Apple (AAPL) products, rather than typical enterprise wares. To control the systems, you need only a smartphone or tablet application, rather than a purpose-built remote.

"Previous attempts to deliver collaboration have been incremental and good," Rowan Trollope, SVP and GM of Cisco's collaboration technology group, said in a release. "But the cold, hard truth is that today's collaboration tools are forcing users to do today's jobs with yesterday's technology. It is time for a change. The industry is ready for a great leap forward, and Cisco is making that leap."

This isn't the first time Cisco is making the attempt. In 2010 the company announced Umi, a videoconferencing system made for living rooms. Umi, which sold for $600 and a monthly subscription fee, competed with free services like Skype. Cisco retired the ill-fated product a couple of years ago.

MORE: Cisco wants a piece of the 'smart cities' business

But the competition is even fiercer today, both in and out of meeting rooms. Web-based upstarts like Blue Jeans Network and larger companies like Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) -- which now owns Skype -- have jumped into the lower- and mid-ranged solutions game. Then there are the traditional unified communications and videoconferencing players, like Avaya, Polycom (PLCM), and LifeSize, owned by Logitech (LOGI). And, of course, a growing number of free, consumer-only applications including Apple's FaceTime, Tango, and Google Hangouts.

The trend, with all of these competitors, is to offer a more cloud-based, user-friendly approach to videoconferencing, one that doesn't necessarily require acquiring lots of bulky, pricey hardware. And Cisco, despite its networking prowess and deep pockets, doesn't have the best track record when it comes to making and selling products that have the average person, not technologist, in mind.

There's a lot at stake here for Cisco. With declining growth in its core businesses, switching and routing, the company has turned to other product lines, like security and data center tools, for growth. But it's had a tough time expanding its collaboration business, partly because of a lack of interest in its pricey Telepresence systems. According to Cisco's most recent annual report, sales of collaboration products decreased by 6% from 2012 to 2013 primarily because of a "decline in sales of Cisco Telepresence Systems and, to a lesser degree, a decline in sales of Unified Communications products."

MORE: Meet Microsoft's new (old) head of Lync and Skype

In some ways, Cisco's new videoconferencing tools won't help -- the lower-priced models may cannibalize its Telepresence line and lead to an even greater decline in sales (or price, or both) of the flagship system. But it's a necessary step as the company takes its videoconferencing wares downstream.

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.