With no major product announcements at VoiceCon last week, Cisco Systems made news anyway by inviting former vice president Al Gore to deliver a keynote session with Cisco CEO John Chambers.
The message was simple: Collaborative technologies like Cisco's TelePresence videoconferencing not only help companies cut down on business travel and the global-warming pollution associated with it, they can also speed up the debates, negotiations and research that need to take place around the planet so that its many governments, corporations and scientists can develop a response to global warming.
The keynote format was rather unusual. Cisco had chief marketing officer Sue Bostrom on the stage. Chambers and Gore participated via TelePresence video connections from San Jose and Nashville, respectively. Journalist Lawrence McGinty, who served as something of a moderator during the keynote, joined the conversation from London.
Gore said that most companies have identified reduced business travel as one of the biggest opportunities for them to cut down on carbon emissions pollution, but he said the technology needed to make reduced business travel feasible hasn't been available until now.
"So people have been waiting for a new videoconferencing and teleconferencing option to come along that would be realistic enough to substitute for a much larger fraction of the in-person meetings that have been required all over the planet," Gore said. "I'm here because I'm impressed by the system [TelePresence]. It's the most realistic effort I've seen thus far. I think a lot of businesses are going to find this attractive."
Gore also hinted that he is in discussions with Cisco to use TelePresence as a way to accelerate global debate on how to reduce carbon emissions.
"Without going into details about stuff that is not public yet, I went to John [Chambers] and his colleagues at Cisco with an idea on how this technology could be used in some of the deliberations that are so important to try to get an agreement on reducing CO2," Gore said. "They responded just like that. It's still a process. I think it's a tremendous advance, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity to use it more myself."
Chambers said that global warming is an undeniable problem that no one can solve alone. He said the time has past for arguing with one another about whether global warming is happening. Now, it's time to bring together people from all over the world to solve the problem.
"I think we have a vision to change this," Chambers said. "[TelePresence] offers the ability to no longer be in the same room together to solve these problems. We can bring world leaders, business leaders, citizens and scientists together in a way that's never been done before."
Earlier in the week, during their own keynote presentations, some of Cisco's competitors took thinly veiled shots at Cisco's TelePresence and its hefty price tag -- US$300,000 to US$500,000 for a single TelePresence room. And in informal chats on the showroom floor, a couple of other vendors wondered why Cisco didn't take the opportunity to announce new products or offer more concrete advice to the industry on how they can be more green.
Some argued, however, that this wasn't really the point of Cisco's keynote at VoiceCon this year.
"Cisco's key goal was to establish [itself] as a vendor with a vision of the future," said Henry Dewing, principal analyst with Forrester Research. "Cisco very badly wants to be the CIO's best friend and strategic adviser."
Cisco wants to demonstrate just how powerful a technology TelePresence is, he said. VoiceCon attendees saw a conversation among four people in different parts of the world that was as easy to follow as any in-person discussion.
"I think the presentation format with TelePresence worked very, very well," Dewing said. The virtual panel was almost indistinguishable from many of the live, in-person panels VoiceCon presented during the week, he said.
"I think there was a bit of a surprise with how well the technology works," he said. "There had been a lot of bashing of Cisco's TelePresence in other keynotes. More than a few people in the audience hadn't experienced it before. They saw just how good it is."
"We lead in the business of showing people what's possible," Chambers said. "That's what VoiceCon should be. It's about unified communications changing the world, both productivity-wise and healthcare-wise and the environment."
Video from Cisco's keynote presentation at VoiceCon Orlando 2008
Former US vice president Al Gore discusses global warming and how collaborative technology such as videoconferencing and unified communications can help address the problem.
Cisco CEO John Chambers talks about how collaborative technologies such as TelePresence and unified communications can help companies reduce their own carbon-emissions footprint while saving money and improving productivity.