Umi and the Critics: Observers Don't See Cisco's Consumer HD Videoconferencing Play

Carl Weinschenk

Cisco officially introduced Umi (you-me) which, besides doubling down on the obscure and too-cute product names, is the company's first foray into home videoconferencing. The Umi product consists of a high-definition video camera and an in-home box that connects the broadband connection to a flat-panel television, according to InternetWeek. Umi costs $599, with a monthly charge of $24.99 and will be available on Nov. 14, the story says. The platform will be sold at the Cisco website and, beginning next year, through Best Buy and Verizon.

The story, as well as other commentators, suggest that Umi is an attempt to take on Skype. Though both are video products, there are significant differences. The Skype service comes free and as a low-priced premium service. The story says that about 40 percent of Skype's 560 million users use the service for video calls, which are not in high definition.

The tone of the coverage of Cisco's announcement ranged from skeptical to doubtful. Larry Dignan at ZDNet points out that homes will need 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) for 720p resolution and 3.5 Mbps for 1080p, which he suggests may require an upgrade in a majority of cases. He also has doubts about the price tag and indicates that both sender and receiver have to have the Umi gear for the system to work. He quotes Sanjiv Wadhwani, a Stifel Nicolaus analyst, who suggests the initial target might be education, health care and other vertical markets.

The headline of Rick Aristotle Munarriz's commentary at Motley Fool
leaves little doubt about how he feels about the project: "That's Just Dumb, Cisco." He focuses on the cost, the existence of systems that do the same thing (albeit in standard definition) for free and the fact-also pointed out by Dignan-that for the those HD elements to work, the system would need to be deployed on both sides of the call.

Also coming from the trial-by-headline school of journalism is Ryan Lawler's piece at NewTeeVee (keep in mind that reporters don't always write headlines): "At $599, Cisco's Umi Telepresence Is a Non-Starter." He provides a fairly straightforward rundown of the features, and mentions interoperability with Google Talk as a standard-definition option. The tone, however, is the same skepticism expressed by Dignan and Munarriz.

This is a hard one to understand. Cisco is far too smart to think this will find a decent market. More likely, it is aiming, as Munarriz said, for smaller professional markets. Cisco probably also is trying to own the concept of consumer-grade HD conferencing. Costs will come down, and the company may be thinking that being the first mover will pay off over the long haul-especially considering how deeply enmeshed it is in the rest of the network.

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