The Telepresence cat finally came out of the Cisco bag two weeks ago, when Cisco announced Umi (that’s You-Me), a video-conferencing endpoint and service they now offer to the consumer market as a “Telepresence for the home” solution.
Umi, in case you missed all the hype, comprises of a video camera (that goes on top of your existing HDTV) and a set-top box-like device, and requires a broadband connection of at least 1.5Mbps upload rate (for 720p calls). It’s the home telepresence system we’ve all been waiting for, with great audio and video quality, a cool set of features (video mail, video library) and a great UI, but there’s a catch.
The catch is the price tag: $599 plus $25 a month for the service. As Ken Writ, VP of Consumer Marketing for Cisco, said during the conference call: “It’s a premium product at a premium price point”. Reminds you of another video conferencing product from Cisco?
Yep, it’s “Telepresence is for the rich” all over again. It may be that “this is the best product to bring Grandma and Grandpa into the living room so the kids can showcase their latest school project or model their Halloween costumes”, as Sam Diaz reads between the lines, but it’s a very pricey toy that is far from being affordable and for the average Joe,
And the success of such a product is dependent on just that – the ability to massively deploy it, so that the average Joe that decides to spend his hard-earned bucks on Umi has someone to talk to. If it’s just you and a few other nut cases, then it’s the Apple Fans Only Dating Service all over again. And I don’t think Apple will succeed in that road either.
In fact, 8 years ago an Italian service provider called FastWeb rolled out a similar product (pdf) powered by RADVISION, and it failed mainly because the install base was too small. And if you can’t call your family or your friends, why do you need video?
Cisco knows that. So in order to properly bootstrap the service, they teamed up with Google (!) to enable users to connect Umi with GTalk. This adds a lot of users to the equation, but brings an old-new question to the table: Who needs Umi?
If your friends are on Gtalk or Skype or whatever, you probably are too. And while you’re not sitting on the sofa using your HDTV as a screen, one can argue that this is not the experience you want anyway. Sitting in the home office, on the computer, talking video using a software client does the trick, and the quality, given you have the bandwidth, is just as good.
And if you don’t have the bandwidth, then Umi is not for you anyway. And again – there are alternatives that work pretty well at much lower upload rates. And with the new competition from Skype and Avaya, the demand for such a high-end system for the home is unclear.
Not to mention that, assuming you do want to sit in front of the TV and talk, wouldn’t using your TV be much easier? The Logitech Revue, which will connect to the much anticipated Google TV, will enable users to do video conferencing as well. So will the Microsoft Xbox 360, which will use its Kinect feature to connect to OCS – sorry, Lync – users using video. These seem to be much more intuitive extensions than another box and another camera.
If you feel like it’s Facetime revisited all over again you are quite right – I suspect that with all the marketing hype, those who will buy the expensive toy for their living room will mainly communicate between themselves, and the hype will die sooner than you might expect.
Gartner analyst Nick Jones said it best in his blog post:
Why would any sane consumer pay $600 plus $30 a month for something which is available for free elsewhere?
Based on what I know at the moment I’ll be amazed if it succeeds.
So sorry, Cisco. We’re not impressed. And it’s not us, it’s you. I mean Umi.