Polycom takes a giant leap for video

Polycom announced its RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite this week, which could put the company in a good position when the video market peaks.

On Monday October 8, Polycom held a technology day in New York. At that event Polycom outlined its vision, strategy for the near future, and a bevvy of new products to support its new approach. Polycom’s vision of ubiquitous video collaboration is similar to that of most other video vendors, but its approach is much different.

Talking about ubiquitous video is certainly much simpler than delivering on it, as it requires cooperation from the rest of the industry. Once every vendor is on the same page, video will go through that "rising tide" that we’ve all being waiting for. While I still don’t think the industry is there yet, I believe what Polycom announced puts them in a position to capitalize on that rising tide, whenever it occurs.

Polycom made several product announcements, but the one that I felt was the most significant was the RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite, which is an extension to the company’s RealPresence Platform. CloudAXIS is a browser-based client for secure B2B and B2C HD video calls. The client is built on HTML5 and unifies several video and collaborative work streams, such as document sharing, which creates a single pane of glass for workers to use to collaborate. However, the feature I like best in CloudAXIS is the unified directory. Polycom brings together directories from a number of business and social media platforms, including Skype, GTalk, Facebook, Microsoft Lync and IBM Sametime. I’ve long felt one of the biggest barriers to broader video adoption is the directory problem, as users really don’t know who is available or how to connect to anyone except to those individuals on the system you’re using. CloudAXIS also has integration with standards-based systems from other vendors such as LifeSize and Cisco, enabling B2B communication. The company is also on the vision of ubiquitous video, so I’m hopeful we will see a single corporate directory – or at least federated directories - sometime in the near future.

Polycom also announced it was supporting an open and standards-based version of SVC that also included native AVC interoperability. Startup Vidyo has been the most vocal regarding the power and value of using SVC for video, but they, like others, have a proprietary, closed version of SVC. As far as I know, Polycom is currently the only vendor with a standards-based implementation of SVC that offers simultaneous support for AVC, providing backward/forward investment protection. Microsoft has also announced that it will be the first company to license and implement this new standards-based SVC technology, per Warren Barkley’s quote in Polycom’s press release. The quality of SVC is breathtaking but the closed implementations of the technology has held back its usefulness. Polycom’s open standards-based implementation will be a big step forward for SVC, especially as it will deliver 3X HD video capacity – even for its installed base via a software upgrade option.

The other significant announcement from the event was the unveiling of the 800s, Polycom’s software-based multi-protocol MCU that runs on industry-standard servers/hardware. This is a notable product release for a company whose history has been based on hardware sales. Contrary to much of the media hype on virtual, software-based platforms, there is still plenty of market opportunity for hardware MCUs, but the virtual version is going to play a significant role in video becoming a ubiquitous resource. The decision of whether to use a hardware- or software-based MCU really depends on use case, but vendors should offer both to give customers the choice of which to use.

There were a few other announcements, such as new consistent user experience across the platform, new endpoints and a cool iPad application called "SmartPairing," but these are the ones that I thought were most significant.

Polycom’s vision and strategy are in tune with the direction the industry must move in, and enable the company to capitalize on new industry growth opportunities. Given its share, it’s fair to say that the video industry’s transition will happen more rapidly given Polycom’s announcements today. I also like the focus on the back-end and front-end challenges on delivering ubiquitous video, meaning its product portfolio can support the direction the company wants to move in and support the direction the customers want to move. The next area Polycom must tackle to fully make this shift is migrating and developing its channel. Much of Polycom’s channel consists of traditional audio/visual integrators, who don’t fully understand the power of software, cloud-based services or how to position virtual platforms as opposed to those based on traditional hardware. A year ago I would have said this was a huge Achilles heel for Polycom, but the company has brought in some new channel, sales and marketing talent and I expect it to make some significant progress here over the next year or so.

While the vision of ubiquitous video is certainly not unique to Polycom, the company rolled out many industry-leading products and a clear strategy to support the vision. While I still believe there are many significant hurdles to overcome to get to ubiquitous video collaboration, Polycom’s announcements at their Strategy Day appear to fuel new growth opportunities for all and set the stage for Polycom to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises. If I were one of Polycom’s customers, I’d be enthused about these announcements. The major themes I left the meeting with were: investment protection, B2B and B2C enablement, innovation, scale and user experience. One small step for Polycom, one giant step for the video industry.

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