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Video Phones In the Office?

Video phone manufacturers have come and gone, leaving business users with little to choose from in the way of affordable solutions. Can new players, as well as the old standbys deliver products that make sense for business users?

Over the last decade, video conferencing technology has made significant inroads into the corporate conference room, thanks to aggressive marketing by vendors and the channels ability to deliver viable solutions. However, the typical knowledge workers desktop remains devoid of this collaborative tool.

Solution providers have been pitching desktop video phones for some time now; however, the uptake by businesses has never approached the predictions cast by vendors. Many businesses still seem apprehensive about desktop video conferencing technologies, despite the numerous studies showing that the technology can deliver significant ROI and enhance worker productivity. Perhaps that apprehension has its roots in misconceptions about the technology, ranging from reliability to quality to bandwidth use. Yet, odds are the primary resistance to adoption comes from an age-old business concern cost.

Vendors are recognizing that fact and are striving to bring the cost of video phones into the same range as desktop VoIP handsets, moving towards making desktop video phones more affordable and a viable option for replacing deskbound phones, VoIP or otherwise.

However, some vendors are sticking to the more traditional video phone format that combines a multiline SIP/VoIP phone with single-user video conferencing capabilities. Before delving into the low-cost alternatives, it pays for solution providers to become familiar with offerings from major vendors, to compare features, value and compatibility. Good examples can be found in products from Cisco Systems Inc. and Polycom Inc.

Cisco IP Video Phone E20: With a MSRP of $1,490, Ciscos desktop telepresence device, the IP Video Phone E20, proves to be one of the more expensive ways to bring video conferencing to a users desk. Nevertheless, Ciscos product exemplifies what may be one of the best products to bring video into a VoIP solution.

Cisco came into possession of the E20 with the purchase of Tandberg in spring 2010. The gearmaker currently is rebranding Tandbergs products to fit into the Cisco lineup, including the E20. The E20 is feature-rich, which makes it suitable for bringing video and voice to every desk in a business, as long as price isnt a primary consideration. The unit features a fully integrated IP telephone, which integrates with VoIP services, while a 10.6-inch screen brings WXGA clarity to video conferencing. An integrated 1.3 mega pixel camera captures video at 30 frames per second, while adherence to video standards H.264, H263+ and H.263 make the unit interoperable with many video conferencing solutions.

Although the E20 may prove to be the perfect accessory on a Cisco powered VoIP network, the high price of the unit will relegate it to executive desktops and other specialized implementations.

Polycom VVX 1500 D Business Media Phone. Polycom is taking a more traditional approach to desktop video conferencing by offering the VVX 1500 D Business Media Phone, a hybrid device that pairs a VoIP SIP phone with a H.323 video conferencing device. The units voice telephony functionality integrates with compatible SIP-based IP PBX and softswitch platforms, allowing the unit to be used instead of an IP voice device, which increases the units ROI.

With a street price of around $750, the VVX 1500 D is not inexpensive. That makes the Polycom unit a bit of a hard sell for most solution providers looking to put video phones on SMB desktops. However, Polycom offers a great deal of flexibility; the support of industry standards and a highly customizable API allows solution providers to integrate the unit in a number of ways or develop customized vertical market offerings. Those capabilities may not be found in less expensive, proprietary offerings.

A Different Approach

As high-performing as they might be, video conferencing phones like those from Polycom and Cisco simply may be beyond the budget of many businesses considering the leap to video. Nevertheless, the channel does have some other options.

Vendors such as Grandstream Networks Inc., Worldgate Communications Inc. and 8×8 Inc. among others are looking to make desktop video phones affordable for most any business. However, to accomplish those goals, some compromises have been made. For example, some low-cost video phones are designed to work only with a vendors hosted VoIP service, while others use public video conferencing services, such as Skype or ooVoo. Still, there are some that offer robust features and operate with some of the major video conferencing and VoIP standards, such as SIP and H.323, which may suit a channel partners needs adequately. 

Grandstream GXV31xx Series. Grandstream introduced a series of video phones, the GXV31xx series, in 2009. The phones, which the maker refers to as desktop IP multimedia telephones, feature a 7-inch touch-screen color LCD, 1.3 mega pixel tiltable CMOS camera with privacy shutter, dual 10M/100M Ethernet ports with integrated PoE, integrated Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), dual USB ports, SD port, stereo audio and TV output, headset jack and stylus pen.

The phones are designed to be compatible with most third-party SIP devices, major IP PBX platforms and services. With a list price of $349, Grandstreams phones should prove to be affordable enough for new deployments of VoIP solutions, allowing channel partners to sell video capabilities, as well as traditional VoIP services, at the same time.

The phones feature technology that should also reduce deployment costs. For example, each phone has dual Ethernet ports, allowing a single Ethernet cable to be shared for a desktop PC and the IP phone. That eliminates the need to run additional cables, add switched ports and provision larger Ethernet networks to install VoIP to a desktop. That savings alone can make up for the extra cost of the video phone over a traditional, non-video VoIP handset.

The phones also feature Wi-Fi connectivity, eliminating the need for dedicated Ethernet cabling altogether, while increasing deployment flexibility to areas not wired for IP traffic. Small businesses will benefit from the included peer-to-peer IPVideoTalk, which allows partners to set up basic video conferencing capabilities without having to deploy a new IP PBX or register with external SIP services.

Grandstream offers potential channel partners the Grandstream GXE Reseller Certification Program, which authorizes VARs to resell Grandstream products via distributors. The channel program offers margins, enhanced support and other incentives to make selling Grandstream products that much easier.

Ojo Vision Digital Video Phone. Worldgate Communications Inc. is courting the small business and SOHO markets with its Ojo Vision Digital Video Phone, a device that is designed to work with a SIP service that features unlimited calling across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. While bordering on the consumer side, the Ojo Vision Digital phone does have some applicability for businesses, especially those that only need a minimum of phone lines or have small offices scattered about various locations. The phone retails for $99, while the service comes in at $29.99 per month.

The device may prove to be a creative way to introduce a business to the benefits of video calling, without incurring additional costs. Whats more, the device and service make for a good upsell opportunity for the companys business offering, the Ojo ProVision digital service, a VoIP offering that incorporates a plug-and-play video phone that can be setup to self provision.

As a service, ProVision eliminates the need to set up an IP PBX, backend servers or other onsite hardware and software solutions. Ojo ProVision is a turnkey solution that includes both the Ojo Digital Video Phone and a variety of service options. Each service plan includes traditional calling features like caller ID, call waiting and three-way calling as well as video-specific features, such as  three-way video conferencing, connecting to a large screen LCD or TV and unlimited Ojo-to-Ojo video calling worldwide. The service retails for $300 upfront plus $30 per month per video phone.

While the bundled service model may eliminate some revenue opportunities for solution providers, ideally the low cost of the service and the phone will lead to larger adoption, which in turn should drive more recurring revenue from the service. The company is planning to use an indirect sales channel to target SMBs. The company launched its agent program at the Spring 2011 Channel Partners Conference & Expo. Agents will be paid a one-time bounty per seat plus a monthly residual on the service plan. Support includes back-office support, an online portal and access to sales engineering as well as marketing materials.

8×8 Tango VTA464. The Tango VTA464 from 8×8 is very different from the typical video phone. 8×8 calls the device a Video Terminal Adapter (VTA), and it is designed to work in conjunction with a traditional handset.

For those looking to combine video with a VoIP service, the Tango may prove to be the easiest path to accomplish that goal. The Tango plugs into an Ethernet line and acts as a SIP connection for 8x8s VoIP service, provides an Ethernet port for a PC and converts a standard analog handset into a VoIP handset. The Tango retails for $199.99 and requires signing up with 8x8s VoIP service. 8×8 offers several plans starting at $24.99 a month, which includes unlimited calling in the United States and Canada, as well as eight additional countries. The company also offers business plans that offer hosted IP PBX services and unified communications capabilities. The Tango is a proprietary device and works with other Tango devices.

8x8s offering is very similar to what Ojo is doing with their ProVision service, which also combines VoIP services with proprietary video conferencing. However, 8×8 does not offer as comprehensive a channel program with only affiliate and referral options.  Affiliates directly engage new customers and provision those customers, earning commissions on the service offerings. Referral partners garner referral fees for signing up customers with 8×8 services.

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a freelance writer specializing in the IT channel.


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