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Industry thought leader interview: Michael Frendo, Polycom

After six months in a new position at Polycom, Frendo discusses the state of the collaboration industry.

Michael Frendo is Polycom’s Executive Vice President of Worldwide Engineering and has been in this current role for about six months now. In a company full of geeky engineers, he can be thought of as the head geek. Given that he’s been in the role now for about six months, I thought it would a good time to check in with Michael and get his impressions of the collaboration industry and Polycom’s role in it.

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Polycom’s Executive Vice President of Worldwide Engineering Michael Frendo.

Question: Given that your last position was SVP of Architecture at Infinera, a networking company, what attracted you to the collaboration market and this position at Polycom?

Michael: I like to look for opportunities in markets that are undergoing disruption. With change there is always opportunity. I am also fond of real-time communications. I started my career working on DMS100s in the 1980s, which, and I led the VoIP group at Cisco as we reshaped voice communications to run over IP networks.  

Today, I see a lot of change in the collaboration market. The market for room systems is flattening, but personal systems are growing rapidly. Video usage is growing like crazy and consumerization is changing people’s expectations. Not just about video, but also about collaboration – video, voice, and content. Change creates opportunity and there is plenty of opportunity to lead the collaboration industry as we move away from “bowling alley” video towards systems that integrate audio, video, and content.

Another opportunity for change comes from mobility. More and more people are telecommuting or working from the road. Enabling workers to do more when mobile is opening up huge opportunities. As an industry, we need to enable more mobile endpoints. Mobile phones are pervasive and interoperable, so the solutions that we build must be as well.

Question: What are your key findings after your first half year on the job?

Michael: I was surprised by the overall market for video, as I didn’t expect it to be flattening out like it has been. It’s growing slowly but not like I thought it would be. From the outside looking in, I saw that the technology has improved a great deal and more people are using consumer video like Facetime and Skype so I thought we would see business video be more ubiquitous.

On the infrastructure side, it seems like we are just getting started trying to scale solutions. Most video deployments are relatively small compared to other communication modes and we have made very little progress scaling video to millions of endpoints. Interoperability is also painful for everyone today. The industry players seem to be adapting to what everybody has, as opposed to coming together and agreeing on a standard. We need to focus on removing the pain of interoperability and make this easy for customers. This is part of the opportunity I see – to solve the scale and interoperability problems.

With respect to Polycom, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the company was doing the things they need to do to align to market trends. For example, cellphones can have poor audio quality in a bridged call. Polycom infrastructure detects cell phones and applies algorithms to make the call sound better.

Question: Is consumer video a threat or an opportunity for Polycom and the business video industry?

Michael: I don’t see consumer video as a threat at all. It’s an advantage and an opportunity. The consumerization of video gets people using video, and that’s a great thing for the whole industry.

As people use video, they will be more apt to use it as part of their business experience. Workers want a high-quality experience and to collaborate with interactive whiteboards, video systems, conferencing platforms and mobile phones. Bringing these together is a problem that only a systems company can solve. The opportunity to take the consumer experience to the next level is significant.

Question: What is your vision for the industry?

Michael: Five years from now we will have far greater scale and resiliency for collaboration systems. Interoperability challenges will be behind us and the systems will be far easier to use. Not just for video but also from audio and content sharing. In fact, I believe content will be a much bigger part of the collaboration industry. Not one-way content sharing systems like we have today where control needs to be passed back and forth. That concept will go away in favor of solutions where we can share and annotate content with multiple parties in real time.

Question: What are the biggest challenges facing the collaboration industry today?

Michael: Interoperability remains a huge problem. All of us in the video industry spend a significant amount of time and money making interoperability work, but it never solves the problem entirely. As an industry, we need to make the decision to stop building products that break everything in previous generations. I think of how much engineering time is spent gluing things together instead of working on cool stuff, and I believe that’s holding the industry back from taking the step to the next level.

Solving the browser problem continues to be an issue. WebRTC works with some browsers but not with others. WebRTC provides a standard but browsers that do not support it still require plug-ins. I think the divergence of browser-based communications is a huge issue and it’s not heading down a good path. The whole concept of browser-based communications is to remove the device from the equation, but it hasn’t done this yet.

Whether its room-based, mobile- or browser-based video, we’re still chasing interoperability and that’s the biggest problem for the industry.

Question: What needs to happen for these challenges to be overcome?

Michael: The industry needs to consider the entirety of the solution. Most vendors think about their small piece of the solution, and that creates islands of video and collaboration. The bigger challenge is to think of how the larger solution can be created. For example, at Polycom we have created a unique experience, but we need to now think more broadly about how to make that experience pervasive.

I’ll pass this message on to my competitors. If we want to take collaboration to the next level and create a rising tide, we need to accept the fact that islands won’t make video pervasive. Rather we need to work on creating standards-based, pervasive solutions. If we can solve this problem, then the entire industry will grow.

On a final note, I have some thoughts on cloud as a solution. Cloud does nothing to solve the interoperability problem. In fact, cloud has created more islands of video. What cloud does bring to the industry is scale. A pervasive, rich media experience requires scale, and cloud can deliver that scale.

Question: Any final thoughts?

Michael: I’ve been at Polycom now just under six months and I’m more excited today than when I walked in the door. As I said, change creates opportunity and now that I’ve had time to dig in, I see that there is far more opportunity to bring change to communications than ever before. IT leaders should keep an eye on the collaboration space as we’ll see more innovation in the next five years than we saw in the previous 30.

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