Much Ado About Polycom
A raft of announcements, but it's uncertain how big an impact they'll make.
Polycom hosted a hootenanny in New York on Monday. The build-up for the event over the past few weeks was enormous, and the company issued five separate press releases. Part of the build-up included reminders that Wainhouse, Synergy Research Group, and IDC agree that the firm is taking market share, and Forrester Research named Polycom the leader in video conferencing. The firm believes that "this is the most exciting time in Polycom's history."
Despite these successes, Polycom's stock has lost two-thirds of its value over the past year and a half. It seems the company wanted to reach-out to the financial community, and hosting at NASDAQ is a good start. It worked too: After a near-full day of announcements, the company closed up over 8%. Polycom got strong coverage on Twitter, and made headlines at numerous sites including: GigaOm, AllThingsD, Mashable, ZDNet, TechCrunch, ComputerWorld, InfoWorld, FastCompany, and many more.
Part of the attraction was simply that Polycom is a major player in a buzzword-rich sector of a technology area that crosses the enterprise and consumerism. Mashable wrote:
"When Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's video-conferencing product, FaceTime, he promised Apple would work to break down the barriers between video services to make them all compatible with each other. That never happened, of course. However, Polycom--a company that specializes in video-communication hardware--now appears to be taking on the challenge."
Unfortunately, based on the actual announcements, Steve Jobs may still have the upper hand. Let's review some of the bigger announcements:
Polycom announced support for H.264 Scalable Video Coding (SVC). Polycom originally promised this in November of 2010, and will be joining Radvision (now part of Avaya), Vidyo, Google, Teliris and others that already support this technology. SVC encoding utilizes less bandwidth by adjusting to available bandwidth with adaptable layers of information. Polycom is taking an evolutionary approach to SVC. The bad news is H.264 SVC is a (purchasable) upgrade; the good news is it doesn't require a forklift. Pricing was not announced.
Polycom also intends to release a new software-based MCU, the Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s. This software runs on industry standard servers and supports SVC or AVC (Advanced Video Coding) connections, but not both concurrently (yet?). The software is expected later this year, pricing to be announced. This is similar to the software-based MCU announced by LifeSize earlier this year; both solutions are limited to 720p resolutions.
Polycom then announced its RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite. This is software designed to enable browser-based videoconferencing, presence, and IM. CloudAXIS received considerable attention, as it integrates with Skype, Facebook, Google Talk and other presence/IM services. The key value here is NOT video interoperability with those services, but rather the ability to seamlessly instant-message invitations to a Polycom video conference from a single application. There are other IM consolidators that do similar functionality, such as Trillian.
The Polycom version effectively creates the illusion of a global IM directory and offers added drag-and-drop features within the Polycom framework. CloudAXIS supports HD720p video resolution for up to 40 participants. CloudAXIS will come in two versions: enterprise (1Q2013) and a service provider version sometime later.
There were several smaller announcements, but a few deserve special attention.
* SmartPairing Software allows a user to pair an iPad with a Polycom video conferencing system. This transforms the iPad into a remote control for the video system, or it can act as a mobile video system itself. A "swipe" function allows the session to be dynamically transferred from iPad to the group video system. The actual user benefit isn't clear, but tie-ins with Apple products are generally appealing--like everything else nowadays, a room-based video conferencing solution can also be an iPad accessory.
* New Remote: Polycom has updated the user interface on its remote control, now with fewer buttons.
* New Endpoint Hardware: Several new video endpoints were announced, but the bigger story here is that the associated price-points will make Polycom a far more economical solution.
What Wasn't Announced
* With all the build-up, some had expected Polycom to announce a commitment toward High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), the expected successor to SVC H.264 that is actively under development. No such announcement was made.
* An update to its cloud service, which Polycom announced last January, was also not forthcoming. Cloud services are all the rage, and Polycom has been quiet on this since promising it. LifeSize launched a video cloud service earlier this year.
* Clarification on "open" H.264 SVC: Polycom stressed open and interoperable SVC encoding, a message likely aimed at Vidyo. Polycom announced that it intends to share its implementation of SVC with the Unified Communications Interoperability (UCI) Forum, which it co-founded (members include most video conferencing vendors excluding Avaya and Cisco). Microsoft and Polycom are enjoying a strong partnership, but Microsoft's next wave of products have already been cast, thus "open" is yet to equate with "interoperable."
* CloudAXIS will utilize a browser plug-in that will work with popular HTML-5 capable browsers. Polycom does not intend to support WebRTC at this time.
* Any to Any: Polycom does not currently support nor intend to interoperate with video solutions from Facebook, Skype, or Google. This is an area where younger companies, such as Blue Jeans and Vidtel, threaten to steal MCU share, by providing a cloud-based platform that provides interworking among diverse video endpoints. None of the major vendors is directly addressing this need yet.
* Dates and Prices: Many of the products announced are vaporware today. There was not a lot of detail around dates or prices. The company has to remain competitive, but also risks cannibalizing its core MCU and endpoint revenue streams.
Polycom is not just another video room system vendor. Polycom is the go-to-market video vendor for several major UC vendors, including Microsoft, NEC, Mitel, Broadsoft, ShoreTel, IBM, and Siemens Enterprise Communications. These vendors rely on Polycom to keep their overall UC solutions strong in order to compete with Cisco's call control and video products. Yet partnerships were not a big part of Monday's news. Meanwhile the playing field is expanding. LifeSize and Vidyo have increased their strategic partnerships, Microsoft acquired Skype, Avaya acquired Radvision, and WebRTC is working its way to becoming a standard.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and Independent Analyst at TalkingPointz.com