Hot on the heels of its lower-priced videoconferencing gear for conference rooms, Cisco is now hoping to sell personal videoconferencing devices on every company desktop. But at an estimated street price of $1,000 to $2,000 per device, this is a tough prospect.
The idea, says Cisco's collaboration chief Rowan Trollope, is to bring video meetings out of conference rooms. "We want to build an amazing experience to deliver video to every room, desk, and pocket."
The premier device, the DX80, looks like a 23-inch flat screen monitor. It boasts a touch screen and was designed with the kind of sleekness and attention to detail that Apple products are known for -- it's got a similar burnished aluminum finish, and no visible buttons on the front. The legs contain four directional microphones, tuned to block out ambient noise (useful in today's open office plans), and there's a high-definition camera mounted on the top.
Bluetooth pairing will allow users to hand off conversations from their cellphones to the device when they get into close proximity. It's got an HDMI input so users can connect their laptop to the device and treat it like a monitor, as well as Ethernet ports and a Wi-Fi receiver for connecting to local networks -- essential for videoconferencing.
The smaller DX70 looks like a tablet, but is still meant to be tethered to a desk. In this case, it's for users who already have a nice monitor, but simply want a dedicated device for videoconferencing; it has both an HDMI input (for connecting the laptop) and output (to connect it to a monitor).
The DX80 has an estimated street price between $1,500 and $2,000, and the DX70 just under $1,000, says Trollope. Both devices will be sold exclusively through Cisco's partner channel -- there's no retail or consumer strategy here.
But the hardware is only part of the story -- as Trollope says, "The only companies that have ever done an incredible job at user experience combine hardware, software, and services together."
The devices run Android and include an Android browser, and it's possible to download apps through Google Play, but Cisco isn't anticipating that users will run Android productivity apps or virtualized desktops on them. Rather, Cisco used Android because it's well documented technology, which will make it relatively easy for third parties to build vertical collaboration apps that use the devices.
On the software side, Cisco has created a new videoconferencing UI that requires only four steps to set up and make a call -- "It's like configuring WebEx," says Trollope.
On the services side, Cisco is announcing a new WebEx personal service called Collaboration Meeting Rooms, which gives each user a private, dedicated space to host videoconferences. The concept is similar to having a dedicated dial-in numberfor teleconferences, but with a static URI instead of a phone number. The Collaboration Meeting Rooms will let users connect with almost any conceivable endpoint -- Cisco and Polycom devices, Microsoft Lync, web clients like Jabber, or dedicated apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone -- and Cisco says each will support up to 500 concurrent users, and up to 24 SIP-based hardware devices. (This service does not require the new DX devices.)
Cisco's dream of video collaboration for the masses has a larger business motive -- more real-time video streaming means a greater tax on company networks, which in the long run can help Cisco sell more networking gear.
But there are a couple problems with this vision. First, most office workers simply don't hold enough videoconferences to justify a brand new $1,500 device. This is especially true in today's open offices, where holding a highly public videoconference is a nuisance for nearby workers. (There was a reason why meeting rooms were created in the first place.) More to the point, every laptop in the world today has a camera and a microphone, and an ample choice of videoconferencing software and services -- including Cisco's own WebEx.
Trollope argues that having dedicated hardware will mean a much better experience than you can get on a PC. "The challenge for the PC, you have pop-ups, your computer's slow, it's processor-intensive, and the video gets choppy. We wanted to this to be flawless 100% of the time."
He also says that the price for the hardware isn't out of line if you take into account the devices a DX80 could replace, like a high-end flat-panel monitor (which can cost $1,000 in a similar size), a dedicated VoIP phone (perhaps $100 to $200 each), and peripherals like a dedicated microphone and camera. "Next thing you're up to $2,000 to $2,500 in peripherals -- plus a giant mess on your hands."
Maybe so. But the trend in the workforce today is toward consumerization -- workers choosing their own low-cost tools to get a job done. If that continues to be true, the future of videoconferencing is much more likely to come from mobile-centric companies like Biba, Fuze, or BlueJeans, or consumer-first products like Skype, Facetime, or Google Hangouts. Not through expensive dedicated devices purchased and deployed by IT departments.