Cisco Systems over the past few year has put a large bet on video over the Internet, spending tens of millions of dollars during that time to build up its offerings and buy such companies as WebEx, Scientific-Atlantic and Pure Digital.
All this is being done in anticipation of an expected explosion of video-based Internet traffic, and the belief that the network-and a Cisco-based network, in particular-will play the central role as middle man, being the conduit through which the traffic flows from one device to another.
At the core of his vision is Cisco's Medianet, an initiative company officials first introduced two years ago as a way to begin describing their vision for the future of IP video management. Cisco officials have admitted that when it was first talked about, Medianet was more of a reference architecture than anything else. Now the company is about to start putting products and services into the architecture.
During a TelePresence and WebEx conference with journalists and analysts around the country Oct. 19, several Cisco executives talked about new products they plan to introduce this week and their greater overall vision of a video-centric future of communication and collaboration.
"Traffic is moving from information to rich media, and that calls for a fundamental change in technology," Marthin De Beer, senior vice president of the Emerging Technology Group for Cisco, said during the call.
Cisco expects the percentage of Internet traffic that is video to grow from about 50 percent today to more than 90 percent by 2014. That traffic is going to come from wide variety of source, from client devices to mobile handsets to enterprise-level systems, and will touch everyone, from consumers to corporations.
Guido Jouret, CTO of Cisco's Emerging Technologies Group, said that customers have told Cisco that they expect that 80 percent of employees will have videoconferencing on their desktops within five years.
Cisco CEO John Chambers, speaking Oct. 20 at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2010 in Orlando, Fla., spent much of his time on stage talking about video, and Cisco's push into this area.
"We believe that video is the next voice, the next data. We started with that premise seven years ago," Chambers said.
Cisco's conference came as others are making a strong push into video collaboration, which is growing in its popularity among enterprises because of its promise of reducing expenses and increasing employee productivity. That is why Avaya rolled out its Avaya Flare Experience, Logitech last year bought LifeSize-which expanded its offerings Oct. 20-and why smaller vendors like Vu TelePresence, an India-based company, is making a push into the U.S. market with products aimed at SMBs.
Cisco already is putting its stamp on a wide range of devices, including its TelePresence enterprise systems, the midrange offerings it acquired when it bought Tandberg for $3.4 billion, to the recently-introduced Umi, an immersive video communication technology for the home through high-definition TV sets.
In addition, video will be more than a networking issue, expanding into such areas as digital signage. Cisco plans on being a significant player in these areas, too. However, much of the focus on the Cisco conference was on the company's Medianet, and the role of the network as the platform that will make it possible to video from any endpoint to any other endpoint.
The Cisco executives talked about a new products that will become core parts of the Medianet, including the MXE (Media Experience Engine) 5600, which is the driver for enabling video to be transformed to run on disparate platforms in a plug-and-play fashion, from rival video conferencing hardware from rivals like Polycom and LifeSize Communications, to desktop phone systems to mobile devices. The MXE 3500 will enable easier searching of content within videos and other multimedia content.
In addition, the Digital Media Player 4310 is a digital signage device that let businesses display and distribute content. Digital signage has been a key part of Cisco's efforts in the sports arena business, where the company has played a role in such facilities as the new Yankees Stadium and the football stadiums for the N.Y. Giants, N.Y. Jets and Dallas Cowboys.
In response to a question, DeBeer agreed that to make Medianet the central technology in a "pervasive video" environment, there will need to be a level of cooperation from rivals such as LifeSize, Polycom and Avaya, some of which have sounded reluctant in the past to let Cisco lead the way.
However, he noted that Cisco has been investing in this area for four years, and has a much broader strategy than the other companies. It would make sense that Cisco should lead.
"They're going to find it hard to catch us," he said. "As what we do in Medianet flows into standards, they will have to adapt to that."
Andrew Davis, an analyst with Wainhouse Research, said Cisco is making its decisions with the idea that video will be pervasive in the near future.
"This is a company that clearly is betting that it will, and they can be instrumental in making this happen," Davis said.
Cisco also has something else that many of its aforementioned rivals don't-a significant networking business of switches and routers, all of which will be crucial elements of any video-based networking infrastructure.
"[Cisco executives] do have another benefit" that will be realized if their vision of the future plays out," he said.
Cisco will have challenges as it moves forward, Davis said. Companies like Skype already offer video communications services for free or at low prices, and there are a host of companies that make and sell webcams, both of which could undercut Cisco's ambitious-and more expensive-technologies.