Skype reportedly will be rolling out a new function that will let up to five people participate in a video call at the same time, a capability that will let it counter the video conferencing capabilities of such vendors as Cisco Systems and Polycom.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Neil Stevens, general manager of Skype's consumer business segment, said that it will launch a public beta program for the feature, which initially will be available for free but will become a paid service within the next three to four months.
The beta program will start the week of May 10. Stevens said in the interview that group video chat was a feature that users had requested the most. It initially will be available to those who use Skype on PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system. Later this year, a version support Apple's Mac OS will be released.
Skype's move comes as vendors such as Cisco, Polycom and LifeSize Communications-which was bought late last year by Logitech-continue to expand their video collaboration capabilities as demand for such tools continues to grow.
Businesses that were hard hit by the global recession are looking for ways to increase productivity while reducing expenses. Video collaboration is one of those ways, enabling greater communication with employees, customers and partners without the expense of traveling for face-to-face meetings.
In an interview in March, Chuck Stucki, vice president and general manager of Cisco's TelePresence business, said that since the TelePresence products were first introduced five years ago, the business has grown to more than 600 global customers, with revenue that could climb to $1 billion once Cisco integrates Tandberg into the business. Cisco bought Tandberg for about $3.4 billion.
The global market could for telepresence solutions could grow from $3 billion this year to $10 billion over the next five to seven years, Stucki said.
Cisco is looking to increase the interoperability of the disparate multiscreen telepresence systems on the market by releasing TIP (Telepresence Interoperability Protocol) into the public domain. Most video collaboration vendors have signed on, though Polycom officials have refused, saying the dominant player in the market should not be the one heading the push to make its own technology a standard.
Cisco also has unveiled the IME (Intercompany Media Engine) and ViPR (Verification Media Engine) protocol designed to make it easier for companies to communicate with business partners, suppliers and customers through video communications rather than traditional telephone calls.
During a presentation in March about the new IME and ViPR offerings, Cisco officials said the technologies would require upfront costs from the businesses, which prompted a couple of analysts to question why a company would pay for Cisco's products when Skype offers video collaboration for free.
Cisco officials said end users might not see much difference, but that IT administrators will have much more control over the IME than they could with Skype.