Vidyo's claims of free, unlimited video calls could exacerbate industry issues

A startup named Vidyo claims it's going to offer free, unlimited video interoperability. How realistic is that?

The promise of fully interoperable, enterprise-wide video has been much more a vision than a reality over the past decade. Why? Because it’s a really hard problem to solve.

H.323 has been around since the late 90s, and both the market leaders, Cisco and Polycom have subsequently submitted proposed standards to help bring interoperability to video. Additionally, there are a number of cloud-based video providers such as Vidtel, BlueJeans and Glowpoint that have built robust service offerings to help solve the interoperability challenge. Despite these efforts, video interoperability remains limited, albeit much better than it used to be. In fact, today my Cisco Callway end point connected to Polycom, Vidtel and Cisco, so there is progress being made.

On Monday, startup Vidyo released the VideoWay service, which the company is positioning as the panacea to all business video problems. According to a blog on the Vidyo website, “VidyoWay addresses ALL three factors of cost, complexity, and limited connectivity for legacy devices to remove the barriers to enterprise visual collaboration more effectively than any other solution in the market.” Let’s read that again: “VidyoWay address ALL factors that limit connectivity.” Not bad for a startup considering much bigger companies have been working on this challenge for years.

How did they do it? The company pushed the Vidyo infrastructure (router and gateway) into the cloud and then lowered any barrier to entry by making it free. Now, any user can connect any device to the VidyoWay service and make unlimited multipoint, multiparty business calls for free, forever! Cisco, Polycom, Microsoft end points, tablets, smartphones - you name it, they connect it. But is this really the be all and end all for business video interoperability?

Before we get all ga-ga over this and proclaim everyone in the video market but Vidyo dead, let’s take a closer look. The first thing I wondered was why Vidyo had to build this service themselves. There are a number of video cloud providers that are trying to solve the interoperability problem. Why not just work with Vidtel or BlueJeans? I know both have tried to bring Vidyo in, and the feedback I’ve received from those companies is that the Vidyo solution is very closed and difficult to work with. The quality is outstanding, but is highly dependent on everything being based on Vidyo.

Vidyo claims the vendors didn’t want to pay to license the Vidyo APIs to bring them into the service. If that was the only barrier and Vidyo is willing to make it free with the Vidyo service, then why not just give the APIs away? While this remains a bit of a “he-said, she-said” scenario as to what the real answer is, I’ve had an abundance of feedback that Vidyo’s implementation of SVC is closed and locked down, and I’m inclined to believe the service providers. I can see why a Polycom or Cisco would make that claim, but if you’re Vidtel or Bluejeans, there’s no reason to keep Vidyo out of your service.

Regardless of how we got here, though, Vidyo has chosen to build its own service. After talking with the company, I found it’s not really unlimited, unfettered connectivity.

The company has a “fair use” policy that dictates that at least one “legacy” end point - anything that uses an MCU - must be connected to the call. That means I can’t grab five friends with iPads and just use the VidyoWay service to make unlimited calls. One of us would need to be on a legacy system to get the service to work. I don’t believe there’s a technical reason for this, but instead a business reason. When you sign up for the service, the user needs to put in the type of system they have, as well as contact info. This creates an excellent, qualified lead for Vidyo as they know the user has a video system and who the vendor is. Given the overall install base of Cisco, Lifesize and Polycom, it’s a well-thought-out strategy.

On a related point, the Vidyo service doesn’t truly support all business video end points. While they support many of them, they don’t support GoogleTalk or Skype, and when I asked them about Cisco Callway, they couldn’t confirm whether it was supported or not. The reasoning behind Google and Skype is that Vidyo doesn’t feel these are business tools, so they don’t support them. Whether that’s the reason or it’s more technical, the fact remains; no single service provider supports all forms of video. Why? As I said, it’s extremely hard and resource-intensive to do so.

One point that isn’t clear to me is what other restrictions are in the “fair use” policy. I asked them whether a company could just connect its legacy systems into the VidyoWay cloud and use that for all of its video calling from here to the end of time, and the company said that was correct. While that’s a rather magnanimous offering by Vidyo, I have a hard time believing that they’ll be willing to fund building a more and more robust cloud and never, ever charge for it. When I talked to the company about it, I found that the thesis is that no legacy end point could ever have a connection that’s as good as any Vidyo call. But I’ve used Vidyo, Polycom, Cisco and Lifesize systems, and I think the quality of all of them is comparable. Not to say there’s anything wrong with Vidyo’s quality; I think its outstanding, actually. But the whole industry has come a long way in terms of quality. If I were given a free way to connect to them, would I then spend the money and upgrade to a Vidyo solution and ditch all of the other systems I’ve purchased? I’m not sure, but that’s what Vidyo is banking on. The service isn’t available yet, so I’m not able to get a true feel for how my Cisco end point will work in the VidyoWay solution.

Lastly, running a cloud-based video service isn’t easy. If it were, wouldn’t one of the video service providers have a solution that can connect any end point over any network already? Sure, they would be charging for it, but the fact remains most of these companies have been working on this for years. Running a business-grade service is not Vidyo’s core competency, and this is an area where many larger organizations have struggled. It’s hard to believe that a cloud-based Vidyo gateway and router are the only pieces missing to make the vision of ubiquitous video delivered via the cloud a reality. This is where the bulk of my skepticism lies. There are always company-specific issues, differences in vendors’ adaptations of the standards and other issues you don’t face until you build out the service.

So, Vidyo’s claims are that they are building this service for the good of the industry, and that the VidyoWay service will be free to anyone who wants to use it. If the company is indeed willing to continually fund this model and be truly altruistic by delivering a similar experience to all vendors, then I tip my hat to them. However, if the service is designed to favor Vidyo over the other vendors, then this simply creates another island and exacerbates the industry’s problem.

They've talked the talk. Let’s see if they’re willing to walk the walk.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.