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Cisco’s Tandberg deal is about interoperability: Uh, really?

Cisco can go one of two ways with its $3 billion Tandberg acquisition: It can get over old habits and work toward interoperability in videoconferencing and telepresence — or not.


The overarching goal of the Tandberg acquisition was for Cisco to buy its way into the mass video conferencing market with Tandberg’s lower-end, high-definition technology to add to its own high-end telepresence offering. But Cisco CEO John Chambers also noted that Tandberg is “good at” working with other companies, and that Cisco would ultimately offer multi-vendor interoperability.


Cisco doesn’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to interoperability. If video systems are built on the H.323 protocol or Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) they can interoperate. Both Tandberg and rival Polycom use H.323 and have worked together on standardization bodies to establish industry-wide interoperability. Cisco, on the other hand, has been blatant about its disregard for interoperability in videoconferencing (along with lots of other technologies).


Last May when I interviewed Cisco about telepresence interoperability, a senior official explained the company’s stance:


“Standardization and innovation sometimes work against each other,” David Hsieh, senior director of marketing for Cisco, said. “Interoperability is the lowest common denominator.”


Hsieh added, however, that Cisco could change that view with pressure from customers. Maybe the pressure has arrived. Or maybe Cisco just figures that bringing video to the masses won’t happen by locking customers into one brand that can only be used within their own company or with other participating customers.


Still there is no promise that Cisco will suddenly begin working toward standardization and interoperability. First, most of its networking equipment remains proprietary. Cisco’s other collaboration applications are not easily interoperable with those from other vendors – often creating islands of collaboration rather than a mass system. Plus, it will take time for Cisco to integrate Tandberg’s technology with its own. When that happens, standardization could get lost in the shuffle.


Ultimately, the future of the videoconferencing market – which has had numerous false starts and sudden lows – depends on what Cisco chooses to do here.

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