Almost 3 years ago, in October of 2006, I first wrote about Cisco's Telepresence technology which had just launched at that time, and how video conferencing that was virtually indistinguishable from reality was eventually going to sharply increase the productivity and living standards of corporate employees (image : Cisco).
At that time, Cisco and Hewlett Packard both launched full-room systems that cost over $300,000 per room. Since then, there has not been any price drop from either company, which is unheard of for a system with components subject to Moore's Law rates of price declines. This indicates that market demand has been high enough for both Cisco and HP to sustain pricing power and improve margins. Smaller companies like LifeSIze, Polycom, and Teleris have lower-end solutions for as little as $10,000, that have also been selling briskly, but have not yet dragged down the Cisco/HP price tier.
In a trend that could transform the way companies do business, Cisco Systems has slashed its annual travel budget by two-thirds — from $750 million to $240 million — by using similar conferencing technology to replace air travel and hotel bills for its vast workforce.
Likewise, Hewlett-Packard says it sliced 30 percent of its travel expenses from 2007 to 2008 — and expects even better results for 2009 — in large part because of its video conference technology.
If Cisco can chop its travel expenses by two-thirds, and save $500 million per year (which increases their annual profit by a not-insignificant 6-10%), then every other large corporation can save a similar magnitude of money. For corporations with very narrow operating margins, the savings could have a dramatic impact on operating earnings, and therefore stock price. The Fortune 500 alone (excluding airline and hotel companies) could collectively save $100 billion per year, in a wave set to begin immediately if either Cisco or HP drops the price of their solution, which may happen in a matter of months. We will soon see that for every $20 that corporations used to spend on air travel and hotels, they will instead be spending only $1 on videoconferencing expenses. This is gigantic gain in enterprise productivity.
Needless to say, high-margin airline revenue from flights between major business centers (such as San Francisco-Taipei or New York-London) will be slashed, and airlines will have to consolidate to fewer flights, making suitability for business travel even less flexible and losing even more passengers. Hotels will have to consolidate, and taxis and restaurants in business hubs will suffer as well. But these are merely the most obvious of disruptions. What is even more interesting are the less obvious ripple effects that only manifest a few years later, which are :
1) Employee Time and Hassle : Anyone who has had to travel to another continent for a Mon-Fri workweek trip knows that the process of taking a taxi to the airport, waiting 2 hours at the airport, the flight itself, and the ride to the final destination consumes most of the weekends on either side of the trip. Most senior executives log over 200,000 miles of flight per year. This is a huge drag on personal time and quality of life. Travel on weekdays consume productive time that the employer could benefit from, which for senior executives, could be worth thousands of dollars per hour. Furthermore, in an era of superviruses, we have already seen SARS, bird flu, and swine flu as global pandemic threats within the last few years. A reduction of business travel will slow down the rate at which such viruses can spread across the globe and make quarantines less inconvenient for business (although tourist travel and remaining business travel are still carriers of this).
2) Real Estate Prices in Expensive Areas : Home prices in Manhattan and Silicon Valley are presently 4X or more higher than a home of the same square footage 80 miles away. By 2015, the single-screen solution that Cisco sells for $80,000 today may cost as little as $2000, and those from LifeSize and others may be even cheaper, so hosting meetings with colleagues from a home office might be as easy as running a conference call. A good portion of employees who have small children may find it possible to do their jobs in a manner than requires them to go to their corporate office only once or twice a week. If even 20% of employees choose to flee the high-cost housing near their offices, the real estate prices in Manhattan and Silicon Valley will deflate significantly. While this is bad news for owners of real-estate in such areas, it is excellent news for new entrants, who will see an increase in their purchasing power. Best of all, working families may be able to afford to have children that they presently cannot finance.
3) Passenger Aviation Technological Leap : Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have little recourse but to respond to these disruptions with innovations of their own, of which the only compelling possibility is to have each journey take far less time. It is apparent that there has been little improvement in the speed of passenger aircraft in the last 40 years. J. Storrs Hall at the Foresight Institute has an article up with a chart that shows the improvements and total flattening of the speed of passenger airline travel. The cost of staying below Mach 1 vs. being above it are very different, as much as 3X, which accounts for the sudden halt in speed gains just below the speed of sound after the early 1960s. However, the technologies of supersonic aircraft (which exist, of course, in military planes) are dropping in price, and it is possible that suborbital passenger flight could be available for the cost of a first-class ticket by 2025. The Ansari X-prize contest and Space Ship Two have already demonstrated early incarnations of what could scale up to larger planes. This will not reverse the video-conferencing trend, of course, but it will make the airlines more competitive for those interactions that have to be in person.
So we are about to see a cascade of disruptions pulsate through the global economy. While in 2009, you may have no choice but to take a 14-hour flight (each way) to Asia, in 2025, the similar situation may present you with a choice between handling the meeting with the videoconferencing system in your home office vs. taking a 2-hour suborbital flight to Asia.
This, my friends, is progress.