Umi: Cisco’s small-biz Telepresence Trojan horse?

Trojan HorseWith the launch of umi, Cisco Systems announced plans to bring its Telepresence high-definition video experience to the home market. But could umi find a home in the S of SMB?

First of all, let’s set expectations here: by “Trojan horse” we’re not referring to the “1337 h4x0rZ” type. We’re talking about the “Hey, where’d all these Greek soldiers come from?” type.

Here’s why umi could be the small-business breakthrough for which Cisco and its partners have been hoping with Telepresence.

Let’s look at what umi is:

The technology uses 1080p high definition screens and cameras, as well as creating a video and audio link with so little lag that company executives like to brag that those chatting over it can sing together. In its boardroom form, it has three cameras and three screens, and is housed in rooms configured alike to help create the illusion that all participants are in the same room.

Umi follows the form of the company’s single-screen Telepresence suite, designed primarily for executive offices and home offices and featuring a single screen and a single camera. The system includes a set top box, a high-definition Webcam and a remote control.

For the umi launch, Cisco has added consumer-friendly features to the previously corporate technology. The company boasts simplified setup out of the box, using a consumer’s own existing high-definition TV, and umi will support video voicemail, including the ability to check video messages on the go using a PC or smart devices. Video messages will also be accompanied by a text message on owners’ mobile phones.

The company said umi users will be able to video chat with computer users using a Webcam and Google video chat, but it will not support connections to users of other popular home video chat applications, such as Skype or Windows Live Messenger.

Finally, Cisco said that umi videos could be created locally and shared via e-mail, Facebook or YouTube.

Initially, umi is a U.S.-only launch, and no plans to bring it to Canada have been disclosed. In the States, Cisco is partnering with wireless carrier and cable company Verizon to offer umi service over Verizon’s FiOS fibre-optic home network. But at launch, it carriers a steep price for the consumer market — $599 (U.S.) for the umi gear, and $24.99 (U.S.) per month for unlimited monthly service.

Now some context:

London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst Carmi Levy suggests that “perhaps nowhere is the market potential [for umi] as great as it is at the small end of the business spectrum” where the cost of high-end videoconferencing is a major issue, but the need to look professional steers companies away from consumer-grade video communication tools like Skype, except perhaps for one-on-one internal connections.

Here’s why Levy thinks umi’s value prop might pop with small business

  • It’s a simpler solution than other high-quality videoconferencing.
  • It’s offered at a lower price than similar solutions, and at a flat “all you can eat” price – at least in the States.
  • Small businesses often buy like consumers due to their price sensitivity and lack of IT resources.

The biggest challenge Cisco faces is that “this is an audience that still hasn’t realized the business value of such an investment,” Levy suggested. And that’s where the company’s small business-serving channel partners can step in – communicating the value proposition, making the deployment even easier, and perhaps even finding ways to add additional value through applications or other facets of the collaboration story.

Of course, it’s too early to tell the Canadian opportunity – the company doesn’t seem to have any Canada-specific plans for umi right now other than featuring Canadian actress Ellen Page in its U.S. advertising campaign for the technology.

But if (when?) umi does hit Canada, it may well represent a good opportunity for solution providers to jump in and offer a “looks like the big boys” videoconferencing solution at a comparatively low price point. Throw in installation services and wrap around some integration and other functionality, and umi could even make a compelling base for a collaboration-as-a-service offering.

We’re not saying we’ve invented anything here or thought of anything that many Cisco solution providers probably didn’t think of already, but perhaps this is an idea that warrants further discussion with yet another Canadian connection to the story – Cisco small biz sales czar Andrew Sage. Stay tuned.