Is Cisco’s ūmi the revolution of residential communication ?

Last week I was lucky enough to experience (under embargo) Cisco's new home telepresence product, ūmi (pronounced you-me). The photo above shows me and my colleague Vince in front of the home TV we used for the demo. In between us is Allisson, Cisco's PR person in a mock house in a NYC office while we were sitting in a real house in Northern Massachussets.

It was great to be able to experience the service first-hand, since it gives you much more of a feel for it than just reading about it or seeing video. It wasn't quite the kind of stunning experience I had the first time I did a Cisco telepresence, but it was plenty impressive nonetheless. Let me give you some ideas about it:

Physically, the product is in three parts: a shiny black set-top-box, a camera and micro-phone stand that sits on top of the TV and a small remote control. All of these look very professional and sleek, but the set-top box is cumbersome, about as much as any cableco STB or stand-alone DVR. The box plugs to your Ethernet or wifi and your TV's HDMI, the camera and mics plug into the box, et voila, ready to work.

The most impressive thing about was the quality of the video. It was smooth and super defined, without a glitch, and the lighting was fine despite the in-home conditions (business telepresence works in a fully controlled business environment, which a living room clearly isn't). Zooming capabilities are impressive as well, without much loss of definition.

The sound quality was not as good as I hoped it would be. Don't get me wrong: it was fine, just not stunning. You could occasionally hear the compression kicking in, and the echo from the room on the other end was disturbing. Probably mostly down to the microphones sitting on top of the TV a few meters away from us.

Finally, the interface is well thought out and, most important of all, super simple. Cisco clearly understood that they needed to build a product for grandmas and small kids, and they have delivered on that count. The interface allows you to zoom quite impressively as well as manage your contacts.

So, is it the paradigm redefining experience that I've been awaiting? Mostly, I'd be tempted to say yes. I can imagine a few areas of potential improvement, especially soundwise, but all in all, it was a pretty stunning experience (and the photo above doesn't really do it justice).

Having said that, I'm not certain at this stage how successful it will be commercially. I have always voiced my concern that when telco video-communication emerged it would come in at a price point that would be too high for most people to accept, and I fear that this is just what will happen even though it's Cisco's own billing choice.

Cisco announced that for the US launch they were distributing the product under their own brand, both directly (from their website), through retailers (including Best Buy) and possibly through service providers, although at the time of our demo, no such deal was finalised. It will cost $599 to purchase the equipment, and Cisco will additionally charge a $24.95 monthly subscription for unlimited communications and a variety of support services. There's no information about launching outside of the US as of yet. A full-blown marketing campaign will be launched to promote the product in the US.

I think the price tag is way too hefty to get traction in the market. Cisco say they've done the most market research they have ever done for this product, and that that's what the results say customers are willing to pay. They also say that it's a premium experience and that they are aware of that. My own gut feeling is that while all of that might be true, it still won't cut it (unless their target numbers are really very low...)

Still, it's a landmark moment:

  • For Cisco because this is their first move into direct customer relationship under their own brand. Incidentally, it'll be interesting to monitor the reaction of major telcos who will most likely see this as yet another threat of disintermediation...
  • More widely because it redefines what is possible in the realm of residential communication. I really do hope the product is successful, even if I don't believe it can be with that price tag, but I'm also fairly optimistic that Cisco here is expanding the realm of possibilities in the communication space. That will give other people ideas, and probably spur Cisco on to lower that price tag and examine different routes to market and business models.

In other words, this may not be the revolution just yet, but it's definitely the spark.