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Telephony: Video is the New Audio

- October 15, 2014 - 0 Comments

Video is the New Audio at Cisco. That’s an audacious statement for a guy who started working in the Bell system about 30 years ago. The New Audio? Audio sets a standard that is pretty hard to beat. Audio telephony has been around for almost 140 years. (The first major phone system was started in 1877.) And in that time it has grown to become globally ubiquitous, because of three things:

  • it works, really well, all of the time,
  • it’s easy to use, and
  • it doesn’t matter what phone you use; you just use whatever is available, because all the systems interconnect.

Good quality video communication hasn’t been around for a century – it’s been around for maybe 20 years. (Although click here for a great picture of a commercial video phone from 1969). As a Cisco IT guy, let me explain why video is the new audio inside Cisco today.

Video works. We’ve been using video at Cisco for almost all our meetings – over 24,000 video meetings every day, and that number continually grows. (See “HOW much Video at Cisco?”)

OK, it works. But is it simple? And does it work no matter what kind of video “phone” you use? Let’s take a look.

If you schedule a meeting (we use Outlook calendar for this), you invite attendees and with one more click, a video bridge. When people find an available video room, desktop video unit, or video phone, they sit down and dial the 7-digit number and they’re connected. Or they flip open their laptop or mobile and use Jabber to dial the same number into the bridge. Or they click on the WebEx URL and their laptop connects to the bridge. We have a lot of options.

If you just want to have a face–to-face conversation with someone, you follow exactly the same process: find a phone and call. Find a free video endpoint, or use your laptop Jabber or WebEx, and call them. (With Jabber you can politely IM them and ask “OK to call U now?” and if they say “Yes” you just click on the phone icon next to their name. That saves a good minute of phone lookup and dialing time, which doesn’t sound like much unless you make a million calls a quarter, and then it adds up. 😀

So it is pretty easy – as easy as making a non-video phone call. In fact, it’s pretty much identical to a non-video phone call. There are three differences worth highlighting, though.

Quality – Size Matters: When you make a phone call between two phones, the person with the low quality speaker won’t hear as well, and the one with the low quality microphone will be heard less clearly. The same goes for video screens and cameras, except the difference between a 70-inch screen and a 14-inch laptop screen is much greater. You can still see everyone on the call no matter what sized screen you use, but people with smaller screens won’t see as much detail, and people with poorer cameras are usually defaulted to be seen as a smaller image on large screens. You can increase the size but it’s not usually worth it. And video on a pocket mobile phone is so bad most people don’t use them for video calls – although there are a LOT of Cisco people with iPads who use them for video meetings and really like the quality.

Number vs. Alias: The other difference is phone numbers. Cisco, as an early adopter of video, standardized E.164 dialed digits, just like normal phone numbers, for our video calling too. As standards matured, SIP dialing for IP video matured, and SIP extensions look just like an email alias (e.g. yourname@yourcompany). Cisco IT has deployed both, and video endpoints have two addresses (or “phone numbers”). Most of us still use the number-looking phone number internally, out of habit. But since SIP is the universal protocol for company-to-company video communication, we’re starting to use SIP extensions more often (which means we’re getting closer to a more universal version of “all the systems will interconnect”).

Audio vs. Video: People can still connect voice-only, since we still have audio-only phones, and you don’t have to turn on video (or you can turn it off) during the call. There are a lot of reasons not to turn on video – especially for global time zone calls. I’m in the UK, so when I’m in my home office early in the morning for Asia, I may still be in my bathrobe; when in meetings with the US, I may be eating dinner. Either way, turning on video is not my best career-enhancing option. But some people don’t turn on video for other reasons, or purely out of habit. I’ve noticed an age gap here, too – new hires used to FaceTime and Skype and Hangouts are more likely to turn on video for their calls, just because it makes the call more personal and more fun.

Even with these differences, video is still what brings us together across global distances. Video is what helps us connect and collaborate, with faster, deeper, and more personal connections. And video is always available, anywhere at Cisco. It is easy to use and interconnects with every other video unit available, from dedicated 70-inch screens to desktop sized down to laptop and pad and phone screens.

That’s why video is the new audio at Cisco.


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