Videophones dive into cool market

Tandberg and Polycom introduced high-quality desktop enterprise videophones on Monday.

Tandberg and Polycom on Monday ventured again where many have failed before, each introducing a video phone for enterprise desktops.

Image quality is better than on PC-based videoconferencing systems, according to the companies, and both devices can connect to enterprise IP (Internet Protocol) phone systems. But the devices are likely to get a busy signal from recession-plagued organizations that are struggling to cut costs, according to some industry analysts.

Tandberg's E20 Video IP Phone and Polycom's VVX 1500 are designed to let users routinely talk to each other in videoconferences rather than make simple voice calls. They are equipped with video screens as large as a small laptop's, along with integrated cameras. Both let users browse the Web, and Polycom's comes with a suite of productivity applications and an API (application programming interface) that lets developers integrate other business applications such as CRM (customer relationship management).

As enterprises try to get their employees to collaborate more closely while simultaneously cutting travel costs, it will help to have virtual face-to-face conversations available right on a user's desk, according to Tandberg. The E20 offers a 10.6-inch LCD with DVD-quality video along with CD-quality audio, and it offers all the functionality of a standard IP desk phone, said Mike Roussey, global product marketing manager. With additional infrastructure, the phone can be used for video calls with people at other companies, he said.

The Polycom phone has a 7-inch touchscreen LCD and uses Polycom's HD Voice system for high-quality sound. It uses SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) to communicate with IP phone switches and is being certified for interoperability with more than 30 call-control partners. With the right software in place, it can be used for video calls outside the enterprise, according to Polycom.

The Tandberg E20 has a list price of US$1,490 and the Polycom product costs US$1,099. Both are available now.

But videophones have been promoted as the next generation of one-on-one communication for years and haven't become ubiquitous. Despite the advances in this generation of devices, the timing is unfortunate because of both the recession and the trend toward enabling mobility, analysts said.

"Phones have traditionally been the last line on the list ... for an overall upgrade," said IDC analyst Norah Freedman. "Because of budget constraints and economic concerns ... those phones haven't reached a business-critical threshold to justify the price range." Even high-end corporate VoIP phones without video, which sell for about half as much, aren't selling as quickly as they once did, Freedman said.

"People are using their corporate phones less and their mobile phones more now," said Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. Despite advances in quality and ease of use for videophones, they remain niche products, Kerravala said, because there isn't enough reason for coworkers in typical enterprises to see each other when they talk. The phones may be better-suited to certain specific industries, such as health care, where a remote doctor may want more feedback from a patient, he said.

But videoconferencing itself isn't dead, IDC's Freedman said. Cutbacks have been good news for makers of larger, shared systems, especially less-expensive ones such as those from LifeSize.

"In some cases, travel budgets have just disappeared," Freedman said.

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