What the end of Cisco Umi means for home telepresence

In the wake of Cisco pulling the plug on Umi, its home telepresence offering, there’s been no shortage of commentary on the whys of its demise and what it augurs for the future of telepresence and video conferencing in the home (the living room in particular). Cisco clearly had high hopes for the appliance, having pushed Umi with the help of actress Ellen Page (Juno) in an attempt to show its solution in a chummy, living room context.  

The postmortem commentary on Umi has been consistent: too expensive for consumers who were already Skyping for free, a lack of interoperability (David Maldow has more on that at Telepresence Options), higher cable bills to accommodate its 1080p calls, and relatively few customers who could afford its initial $599 price tag and $300 yearly subscription cost (both of those would eventually come down, the latter much more so than the former). 

Maldow feels there is a place for a home telepresence solution that doesn’t require gathering around a small computer screen or using a mobile phone. So does John Vitale, VP of products for AVI-SPL.

Vitale gave me his perspective on why Umi failed and his thoughts on what’s needed for a viable solution in the home consumer market. His commentary follows:

“Cisco ending production should not be an indicator that consumer telepresence solutions such as Umi are not desired. I believe there is a market for a type of product like Umi. It’s the only logical step the technology can take to become a mainstream communication tool for the masses.

“The phenomenon of the mobile market recently showed there is a desire for consumers to use video. However, we can’t expect a consumer to only use a mobile device or their PC for a telepresence call. It needs to be incorporated into those devices as well as their living environment.  The family TV is a good place for it, ideally, integrated like some display manufacturers are doing now with Skype (though nobody would consider Skype a quality telepresence experience) and cable TV providers have been trying to figure out for years to deliver a nice little box they can charge a few extra dollars month to their subscribers.

“It’ll take a decade to get the mass market to replace their TV and replace it with a TV with an embedded TP client. So the need for an appliance box that sits on top of the TV is well justified. It just has to meet these key requirements:

1: It has to work. Video and audio quality is a must, but it also needs to have an intuitive user interface and be truly plug and play, (something the traditional video conferencing industry failed to deliver for the past 25 years).

2: Who are they going to talk to?  It must be connected to a dial plan and infrastructure that can call anyone on anything via video or audio. Yes, exactly the opposite of Skype. This requires supporting standards already in place and an integrated dial plan with the good old fashioned telephone networks. This is more of an overall industry problem to address, not one nice little shiny box.

3: The price has to be right. It needs to be priced within the consumer tolerance range for a home entertainment peripheral that is not seen as a necessary communication tool today. I have my thought on what that price is today, but I’ll leave it up to the consumer electronic geniuses to deal with how much a consumer is willing to tolerate. If items #1 and #2 are covered, #3 determines how many will sell and how fast. If #1 or #2 is still an issue, #3 is irrelevant.

“I think Umi had #1 covered, most of #2 and was in the ball park on #3 (granted they released it with Verizon as a subsidized price point against a subscription).

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