Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Cisco Appeals Europe’s Approval of Microsoft’s $8.5 Billion Skype Acquisition

Networking giant Cisco Systems today appealed to European regulators to reconsider their approval of Microsoft’s $8.5 billion acquisition of the Internet calling service Skype. The EU approved the deal without conditions in October.

Cisco announced the appeal in a post to Cisco’s corporate blog by Cisco’s senior VP for video and collaboration, Marthin De Beer. In it, Cisco argues that the EU should reexamine the deal because Skype doesn’t work with other video and audio calling systems that use industry standard technologies, such as Cisco’s.

“Imagine how difficult it would be if you were limited to calling people who only use the same carrier or if your phone could only call certain brands and not others,” De Beer wrote. “Cisco wants to avoid this future for video communications,” and so has filed the appeal. Messagenet, a European IP calling service, joined Cisco in filing the appeal. Both had commented to the European Commmission during initial hearings on the deal before it was approved.

Cisco doesn’t want the merger rescinded, but rather wants the EC to impose some interoperability conditions on Microsoft. Part of Microsoft’s plan with Skype has been to combine it with its Lync video and voice calling software for businesses. Both Lync and Skype use their own proprietary calling technologies, and so aren’t compatible with other video and calling services.

Sources familiar with the matter say Cisco had sought to work with Microsoft to ensure that its videoconferencing gear would work with Skype, but was unsuccessful in reaching a deal.

Skype has about 700 million users worldwide, and before Microsoft acquired it, had sought to go public in April. For calendar year 2010, it reported revenue of $860 million and a net loss of about $7 million. Successful mainly with consumers who like its free service, the company had begun to work on a strategy meant to bring the service to enterprise users, but had suffered some service failures that gave its target corporate customers pause. The Microsoft acquisition, announced in May, happened at just the right moment.

When the deal was announced, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Skype would, in time, be integrated with other Microsoft products, including the Xbox gaming console, Windows Phone for smartphones, and even its Hotmail Web email service.

Cisco’s videoconferencing business is a force primarily among large companies. It has 50,000 companies who use its gear, but it struggled to create a consumer-focused service, and shuttered its Umi product last year amid a wider corporate restructuring.

Microsoft wasn’t immediately available for comment on Cisco’s move, but I’ll add anything I get from it as soon as I have it.

Update: And here’s the official response from Redmond: “The European Commission conducted a thorough investigation of the acquisition, in which Cisco actively participated, and approved the deal in a 36-page decision without any conditions. We’re confident the Commission’s decision will stand up on appeal.”

Here’s the full text of Cisco’s post announcing the appeal:

Video to Video Communications is the Future

In the past decade video communications has moved out of the realm of science fiction to become commonplace in our homes, at work, and on mobile devices. Yet we remain some distance from the goal of video calls being as easy and ubiquitous as phone calls are today – across any network and between all devices.

Imagine how difficult it would be if you were limited to calling people who only use the same carrier or if your phone could only call certain brands and not others. Cisco wants to avoid this future for video communications, and therefore today appealed the European Commission’s approval of the Microsoft/Skype merger to the General Court of the European Union. Messagenet, a European VoIP service provider, has joined us in the appeal.

We did not take this action lightly. We respect the European Commission, and value Microsoft as a customer, supplier, partner, and competitor. Cisco does not oppose the merger, but believes the European Commission should have placed conditions that would ensure greater standards-based interoperability, to avoid any one company from being able to seek to control the future of video communications.

This appeal is about one thing only: securing standards-based interoperability in the video calling space. Our goal is to make video calling as easy and seamless as email is today. Making a video-to-video call should be as easy as dialing a phone number. Today, however, you can’t make seamless video calls from one platform to another, much to the frustration of consumers and business users alike.

Cisco believes that the right approach for the industry is to rally around open standards. We believe standards-based interoperability will accelerate innovation, create economic value, and increase choice for users of video communications, entertainment, and services.

The video communications industry is at a critical tipping point with far reaching consequences. Just three years from now the world will be home to nearly 3 billion Internet users, the average fixed broadband speed will be 28 Mbps, and 1 million video minutes (the equivalent of 674 days) will traverse the internet every second. As video collaboration becomes increasingly mainstream, multiple vendors will have to work together to enable global scale and broad customer choice.

For the sake of customers, the industry recognizes the need for ubiquitous unified communications interoperability, particularly between Microsoft/Skype and Cisco products, as well as products from other unified communications innovators. Microsoft’s plans to integrate Skype exclusively with its Lync Enterprise Communications Platform could lock-in businesses who want to reach Skype’s 700 million account holders to a Microsoft-only platform.

At the heart of this opportunity is a question about the model for interoperability. One approach allows each vendor to decide how they will interoperate. Another approach aligns the industry around open standards defined by non-partisan governing bodies. The answer will be critical to whether and how quickly video calls become “the next voice.”

When vendors implement their own protocols and selectively interoperate, they push the burden of interoperability to the customer. We respectfully request that the General Court act on our concerns and for the European Commission to ensure the proper protections are put in place to encourage innovation and a competitive marketplace.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work