Interoperability was declared dead at Enterprise Connect 16

Having spent a couple of hectic days at EC16 in Orlando last week I think it’s safe to say all the major players in the video conferencing market have abandoned the notion of interoperability. One could argue their previous attempts were at best half hearted, but now all the pretense has gone.

Industry standards sort of good for clients, horrible for manufacturers

Since the mid 1990’s when H.261 and then H.263 took over from algorithms like SG.4 the industry has been at least nominally been working toward an interoperability standard. It of course has major advantages for clients to have all the systems talk to each other, but it’s pretty bad news for the manufacturers, particularly the larger and more innovative ones. Ideally a manufacturer wants to have a compelling piece of technology unavailable to their competitors to lure clients and then lock them in.

Interoperability isn’t just just measured in ITU standards, it can also be measured in the ability of systems to communicate and be management by different systems. Here are a couple of examples.

Round One to PT.724

The first obvious example of this was PictureTel with it’s wideband (7Khz for those interested) audio algorithm called PT.724. The ability to produce wideband audio on 128k ISDN calls was a huge advantage to the industry standard G.722 or G.711. I think it would be possible to argue that it was the primary reason PictureTel “won” that round of the industry wars against VTEL. By the time Polycom launch the ViewStation in 1998 the world was running more calls on 384k, and the advantage at low data rates was significantly nullified. So the Polycom ViewStation could win on price.

Round Two Tandberg TMS

Another aspect of interoperability is the ability to manage networks of devices. By 2002 the majority of users of Video Conferencing were big organizations with systems installed global. Some were beginning to use IP for call delivery, but the majority were looking to manage their systems over IP, even if the calls were made on ISDN.

As a result the role of system management became paramount. Tandberg perfectly timed the introduction of TMS (Tandberg Management System), and Polycom missed the boat completely with GMS (Global Management System). Tandberg’s team absolutely understood the importance of central management, where Polycom’s video management team believed the quality of the video was the most important (and was the same team who reinvented the market with HD, and failed to build a decent competitor to TMS). Tandberg never opened TMS to any other endpoints than their own, effectively making mixed environments impossible. This enabled Tandberg to make huge inroads into the corporate and government markets at a critical time.

Round 3. Lifesize fails to gain traction.

In 2005 when Lifesize announced the world’s first High Definition video conferencing system, there was a pretty reasonable expectation that a 10x improvement in quality would sweep the market before it.

Lifesize was moderately successful, but in spite of having a huge technical advantage for a number of years (no optimal definition doesn’t count), it failed to make a significant dent in the market. Lifesize believed quality was above all what IT managers wanted. History proved that wasn’t true. IT managers wanted an easy to manage solution. Users wanted quality, but at that time the market was still selling primarily to IT managers. As a result the lock that TMS had on corporates was an effective firewall against the new player. Interestingly enough Lifesize initially understood the importance of management, but in the rush to HD failed to spend the resources to realize it.

To the Cloud

With the rise of Cloud, solutions interoperability has been completely discarded, first by players such as Apple, Skype and Google, all of whom are used to walled gardens, and then by the rest of the “traditional” industry. In the gold rush world of the Cloud, where many of the players are grabbing clients and market share as quickly as possible, any advantage is touted and coveted. The idea that companies would give away to standards bodies things they see as competitive advantage would be considered an anathema.

The days of the cozy duopoly are over and multiple players are now in a life or death struggle to control as much of the market as possible. It’s a true Cambrian moment for the industry.

Is Video Conferencing like IM or telephony ?

For most of it’s history video conferencing has been seen as an extension of the telephony world. Effectively a conference phone on steroids. Every aspect of the video conferencing business from Multipoint calling, to data collaboration, to dedicated hardware, feels like an extension of the audio conferencing paradigm.

The rise of Instant Messaging (IM) communications has fundamentally changed the way many of us work. The semi real time of many instant communications changes the way users think of communications.

Your average SmartPhone user has one telephony application, but a range of IM applications. Different applications like iMessangerFacebookLinkedinWhatsapp and Skype are running, often simultaneously on almost every Smartphone users device.

Not only do users not think this is a problem, but they happily download another application as the need occurs. Downloading Starleaf BreezeGoogle HangoutsWebeXPexip, or a range of others takes moments, and users don’t mind doing it at all.

The rise of WCC applications is increasingly also blurring the lines of where one application ends and another starts. After all is BibaSlack or Spark an IM client, a document management app, a Video Conferencing app? All of those, none, or something inbetween? Whatever they are they are most certainly not interoperable and none of the users seem overly upset by that.

The veil has dropped and no one cares about interop anymore

At Enterprise Connect in Orlando, the great and good from the UC world were paraded on stage and asked about their futures. Cisco and Microsoft specifically had compelling stories to tell about their futures, but they were also highly dismissive of interop. When asked, they both just suggested that’s a problem for 3rd parties to deal with. There was actually boos from the audience, but on reflection I suspect they are onto something.

Cisco, Microsoft and everyone else knows that users get the best possible experience from living purely within their ecosystems. For those clients who do want to interoperate in multiple worlds there are effectively two major methods to cope. Either do it at the end point or in the network. In reality a combination of the two is probably best.

Option 1. Treat your room endpoints like you do your iPhone

The method embraced by Logitech is to bundle a Intel NUC PC, along with their ConferenceCam Group, or ConferenceCam Connect. As the PC is running Windows 10, with a nice kiosk front end, it lives as a familiar device in meeting rooms and is the most flexible solution for running multiple codecs. Just like running multiple IM clients on your iPhone, the user simply picks the one most suitable for the job at hand.

Tely have also embraced a similar model embracing multiple codecs but use a different method. They utilise a small neat set top box running Android. They already run a range of different codecs on it including BlueJeansVidexioVidyo and Pexip. Personally I’m more of a fan of the PC based solution, but that doesn’t mean Tely don’t have an interesting niche here. It’s worth investigating.

Here’s an article on why I believe the future of Video Conferencing room systems in PC based.

In a world where IT managers are being less involved in the applications and more involved with the IP plumbing for the business, this idea of allowing users to do what they want is a lot easier for the IT manager to cope with. With CMO’s soon to have larger IT budgets than IT managers the interest is all about business solutions, not technologies. As a result flexibility is key. After all who wants to spend large sums of money on a dedicated hardware solution and then have users demand to run Google Hangouts, or Skype, or something else or all of them on it.

What about those 3rd party player(s)?

The other option for users is to look into bridging between ecosystems with a 3rd party player. With Acano now formerly inside the Cisco tent, the most viable option here is Pexip.

The Acano approach was to utilise low cost Intel chipsets with H.264 encoding onboard. This had the advantage of being low cost, and easy for the channel and clients to understand. Install this box, have a huge amount of transcoding and bridging capability. It was an effective upgrade from the previous generation of Codian MCU’s. It was a simple upgrade for many clients. It worked so well that Cisco payed $700m for it only a few months ago. It was an excellent move in that it strengthened what was becoming a weak infrastructure story, and denied their competitors the chance to pick up some world class hardware.

Conversely Pexip’s approach was different. They built a solution around high end Xeon Intel processors. They were higher cost than the lower end chips with H.264 embedded, which made them more expensive initially, but because the solution was based on the same processors in Microsoft AzureAmazon AWS and other hosting services they benefitted from the Moore’s law effect at an ever lower price. Noware has Moore’s law been more effective than in this space. In five years that increase in performance, or a lowering of cost has changed by a factor of ten, and that effect will only continue.

With the acquisition of Acano and the big players effectively giving up on interop, I believe Pexip will be in a unique position to empower those large users of one ecosystem to speak to another. Their independence will put them is a powerful position to link this disparate systems together at both a corporate and service provider level. Most large corporates will want to hedge their bets as much as possible and have a minimum of Cisco and Microsoft solutions (and probably many others) for the foreseeable future. Pexip look to be in a great position to benefit.

3rd parties in the cloud

Interop in the Cloud is likely to be another major opportunity for companies able to produce a solution in this space. BlueJeans already fits in this space, but I fully expect to see others fill in more niches this space. It will be interesting to see what users chose as the correct success criteria.

Interop is dead and the markets never looked more healthy

The industry attempted to keep everyone in the big tent of interoperability for over 20 years, and slowly evolved from one static duopoly to the next. Never breaking out and growing in the way it was promised to. It tried the telecom model and it failed.

Now the big players such as Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Apple, as well as a huge host of newer players from Zoom.us, Starleaf, BlueJeans to Highfive are deciding they can move faster, give clients what they want and maintain competitive advantage by ditching interoperability and thinking like an IM app.

Big winners in such a world will include Logitech, able to be Switzerland and Pexip who will help users link it all together when required. There will of course be many others. That’s part of the point of Cambrian Explosions, some solutions will be hugely successful, others won’t make it. I think the lackluster performance of the video conferencing market for the last 20 years has proven the big tent idea has failed.

I see the market evolving much faster as a result and that is going to be great for growth. Five years ago I would have been a big proponent of interpo but interop is now dead, and I’m pleased about it.

I’ve written about and talked about Excession Events for a while now. During these rapid changes in markets where success is redefined, it is often very hard to predict who will succeed. I can however guarantee it won't be boring.

I do hope this article has made you think, and I’d love to know what you think of my opinions. Let’s get this conversation started.

About the Author: Simon Dudley

Simon is a contrarian. He makes a habit of being the guy who questions the orthodoxy, the guy who doesn’t believe it just because the good and the great said it’s true. This has not always been good for his ascent up the corporate greasy pole. However it’s been very good for his employers if they are prepared to listen.

The Book The End of Certainty "How to thrive when playing by the rules is a losing strategy" explains why groupthink and the doing what you’ve always done is no longer the right move.

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