Election-Year Politics and Skype
My sons started high school this week. One came home the other day (they both came home eventually), polished off a snack, then slipped up to his room to do his homework. Little did we know at the time that homework included catching up with buddies on Skype. My wife and I admonished him to finish his homework before intuitively patching in friends on the user-friendly, popular video calling platform that Microsoft purchased last year for a whole lot of dough. He took it okay — I think.
Anyway, that’s only marginally pertinent to the rest of this.
Cisco Systems this week came out with a study, based on research conducted by Purple Insights, that has everything to do with Skype but little to do with my under-18 son, because Purple Insights surveyed likely U.S. voters. The gist of the results: 88 percent of tech-savvy, likely voters said interoperability among video calling platforms was “very” or “extremely” important to them (70 percent of plain-old likely voters said the same). Even though I’m not a big Skype user and my son doesn’t have any friends (that I know of) on, say, Apple Facetime, I happen to count myself among the 88 percent who believe video calling should be as easy as phone calling, regardless of the devices at either end of the call.
Couple things to be clear about: First, when Cisco commissions research, it usually has a reason, but it always commissions good research. Second, the fact that they surveyed likely voters has little to do with anything except that it’s an election year and maybe, by attributing this research to “voters,” public policy folks will take notice (the irony of this later). I love the opening paragraph from Cisco’s related press release: “Nearly four in five likely U.S. voters believe it is important for technologies such as video calling to work together to help create jobs, promote innovation and deliver critical benefits in remote health care, education, business and other services, according to a newly-released survey. In fact, at least two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans alike believe that more jobs will result from open video calling — for instance, dialing a certain number to reach someone on any video system — than if consumers and businesses are forced to rely on closed systems that can only talk to one another.”
After the study came out, I had a phone call with David Hsieh, Cisco’s VP of marketing for video and emerging technologies. He said Cisco felt the industry was “at a critical juncture” when it came to video calling, especially on the consumer side. Cisco, Polycom, and others are working through their compatibility issues on the business side, but on the consumer side (which will eventually interface with the business side), the fact that Skype and Facetime and others don’t work together is a big problem. The study serves to illustrate that consumers also see it as a problem.
“Especially when it comes to video calling over mobile devices,” Hsieh said. “Mobile video traffic will grow 66 times over the next three years.”
That’s a huge number. And it hardly matters if the actual number turns out to be 50 times or 70 times. Pervasive video calling and mobile videoconferencing will be the smartphone’s lasting legacy. Yes, people have been able to do it from PCs and laptops for years, but when the bandwidth is there to support it on smartphones, it will be huge — and then people may expect seamless, cross-platform interoperability.
Cisco’s study betrays concern that Microsoft will keep Skype proprietary, bundle it with other Microsoft products, such as its fairly successful (and competing) Lync unified communications platform, and generally try to monopolize video calling. I’m a little skeptical that Microsoft would go down the monopoly path, based on its past legal experiences, but with Skype and Lync in its portfolio, the company does seem well positioned to do something many would like done — bridge the gap between consumer and enterprise video-calling platforms. If that’s a monopoly, courts will work it out.
Ironically, though surveying “voters” may get some attention, Hsieh told me Cisco really doesn’t want video-calling interoperability to become a political or regulatory issue. “Our preference is for the industry to sort this out,” he said. And that’s how it should be. The potential problem with industry sorting it out is that there are a variety of standards bodies working on different elements of the same equation (getting video calls from A to B). Not to mention, standards bodies don’t always move quickly. Will all this get figured out by the time wireless carriers flip the switch on video calling? Doubtful.
But it has to get figured out eventually. Meantime, companies with technical integration chops will need to work with enterprises, at least, when they decide they want to patch their sales force into meetings from their smartphones and tablets. I happen to agree with Cisco’s underlying premise of interoperability across all video calling platforms. I’m not optimistic we’ll get there soon (and yes, video-calling cloud providers, I know you’ve got a solution).
To wrap up, because I love good research numbers, a few more highlights from the Cisco study:
- 85% of the tech-savvy voters said they own a smartphone.
- 59% of regular voters own a smartphone.
- 90% of tech-savvy voters agree with the statement, “Placing a video call or chat should be as easy as placing a phone call or sending an email.”
- 2% disagree (Who are you? Please fess up.)
- Among all voters, the quality of video calls and technical glitches are considered as big or bigger problems as interoperability (i.e., if the quality doesn’t continue to improve, if video calls get dropped, interoperability isn’t going to matter as much)
- 77% of tech-savvy voters who already place video calls expect to place more video calls over the next year.
- 92% of tech-savvy voters video call friends and family; just 37% currently video call business colleagues/clients.
- 59% of tech-savvy voters user Skype; 17% use Facetime; no other platform has more than 5% share.
- 0% use Jabber, Cisco’s enterprise (i.e. not consumer, like Skype) soft client.
It takes an honorable company to include that last stat in its research.