July 11, 2013 -- Four score and seven years since the Herbert Hoover TV demonstrations, "distance multimedia", "video conferencing", "telepresence", whatever we want to call it, video calling is still trying to grow up.
Irrational exuberence was en vogue a year ago, but even skeptics didn't forecast sales plummeting. Analysts were forecasting 20% year to year industry growth. They were so wrong! Weeks ago, IDC reported 13.2% year to year revenue decline and 21.9% quarter over quarter setback for the industy as a whole. The largest vendors, Cisco and Polycom, had comparable declines consistent with those figures. Logitech paid US$405M for LifeSize in 2009. This year Logitech wrote off half that investment and considered shuttering LifeSize.
Islands of interoperability and elevated prices help explain the thrashing and the falloff in room system sales. A year ago, I should have been even more skeptical. I should have said more about the importance of tablets. I should have anticipated the prominence of Microsoft!
Microsoft has been the bright spot in conferencing, at least since Microsoft acquired Skype. There was plenty of skepticism at the announcement in 2011, and pondering a year ago. More often than not, it seems that phenomenal companies like Skype get lost when aquired by behemoths. Perhaps Skype was "too big to lose". In any case, Skype seems to keep growing and improving. Hundreds of millions of people use Skype. I'm not aware of a significant Skype outage in almost 3 years. Skype integration with other Microsoft products is progressing, perhaps more slowly than hoped, but still happening. Today's One Microsoft reorganization moves Skype (and Lync) development in with the rest of applications. Further, Tony Bates, former Skype CEO, no longer manages Skype but seems to be taking on an even larger role in Microsoft.
Skype critics continue, larger (Cisco) and smaller (Vidyo), but the precedents set by BlueJeans, LifeSize, and now Microsoft, suggest that Skype as a de facto standard is at least as important as the formal ITU-T and IETF definitions.
And the seemingly increasing synergy between Skype & Lync and the rest of Microsoft leaves the astonishing conclusion that Microsoft is now the dominant conferencing company, with Apple, Google, Cisco et al struggling for relevance. At least half a dozen companies are producing mobile robots with cameras and small screens -- a new product point that is intriguing if nothing more. The World Wide Web Consortium is drafting the WebRTC definition to encourage browser-based conferencing, but with BlueJeans, Vidyo and Skype already supporting browser-based conferencing, it will be hard for WebRTC to catch up.
The other day I received, in paper form, "The Telepresence & Videoconferencing Catalog 2013 Issue". "Catalog?" How can a catalog have no prices and no order forms! Most of the prominent companies and products are omitted — no pages for Microsoft, Cisco, Huawei, or LifeSize. I assume the "catalog" is really paid advertising, mostly from system integrators and niche product companies. If this "catalog" represents the conferencing industry, it is hard to see that much progress has been made in the last 20 years. Fortunately, Skype shows how much progress has been made toward making video calling normal and routine.