Cisco, now with Tandberg, pushes telepresence standard

The Telepresence Interoperability Protocol will be open-sourced and submitted to a standards body, Cisco said

Cisco and Tandberg made their big post-merger entrance at the InfoComm conference in Las Vegas this week, promoting an interoperability protocol that will come on a product in July and introducing some other new products.

The US$3.4 billion combination that closed in April brought together Cisco's fast-growing TelePresence Meeting System business with Tandberg's established lineup of lower end products. It also merged two of the biggest players in video collaboration, presumably carving out a path toward greater interoperability among many of the systems already installed in enterprises.

Cisco is pushing for even broader compatibility across the industry with the Telepresence Interoperability Protocol (TIP), which in July will ship in a product for the first time. Cisco developed TIP before the Tandberg acquisition closed and had already begun licensing it free to other vendors, among them Tandberg. Now it is delivering the protocol on its Tandberg TelePresence Server.

TIP is designed to make multiscreen high-definition videoconferencing platforms work together to the point that they know on which screen to place each incoming video stream. It's the first protocol for doing this among multiple vendors' systems, said Charles Stucki, vice president of Cisco's Telepresence Technology Group. TIP can also make the multiple streams used in such sessions appear as one stream so they can better traverse security mechanisms such as firewalls and session border controllers, without being broken up, he said.

"There's no standard in the industry to describe multiscreen systems: For example, in a three screen system, what's right, left, and center," Stucki said.

Cisco appears to be serious about making TIP an industrywide standard: In July, the company will make it an open-source project, and by August, it will submit TIP to a standards body. It has not yet chosen the body, but when that entity crafts a standard out of TIP, Cisco will adopt it, Stucki said.

Interoperability is shaping up to be the focus of much activity and possibly conflict in the videoconferencing world. Last month, a group of vendors including Microsoft, Polycom and Hewlett-Packard formed the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), with the stated goal of making different multimedia collaboration systems work together at a higher level. Cisco was invited to join the UCIF and says it is currently evaluating its involvement with the group.

"Interoperability is much more of a political battle than it is a technological one," said IDC analyst Jonathan Edwards. The mismatch between multimedia systems hasn't been intentional but has come about because companies wanted to get innovations out to the market without waiting for standardization, he said.

"We've got a ways to go," Edwards said. He believes that the bulk of the industry will achieve interoperability within four or five years.

The TelePresence Technology Group formed from Cisco's and Tandberg's organizations is split between California, the U.K. and Tandberg's home country of Norway. Cisco is still working through the renaming of products from Tandberg, with some holding on to the Tandberg name while others don't, Stucki said.

Also on Tuesday, Cisco introduced a variety of products and enhancements. New software for the MSE 8710 Telepresence Server blade and MSE 8510 Media2 blade, which go into the MSE 8000, offer greater capacity. The 8710 blade, for multiscreen meetings, can handle as many as 48 sessions at a time. The 8510, for single-screen calls, can serve 60 endpoints at a time.

Cisco announced it has scaled down its switching and management tools for multipoint Telepresence sessions in a product specially designed for small and medium-sized businesses. The new TelePresence Commercial Express product is designed for use with just 10 endpoints and is priced around $99,000, Stucki said. Cisco later corrected Stucki's comment to say that the product costs $53,000.

In addition, Cisco has taken Tandberg's high-definition telepresence client for PCs, called Movi, and extended it to Mac OS X.

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