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Wainhouse Research's Ira Weinstein on Polycom's Big Announcement: Welcome to Polycom 2.0
October 8, 2012 | Telepresence Options
Wainhouse Research Bulletin
Today Polycom announced a slew of new offerings focused around solving many of the longstanding issues (usability, cost-effectiveness, scalability, etc.) in the visual collaboration space. And by slew we mean many -- 15 or so and counting. For those of you who have been wondering what Polycom has been working on so secretly for the past few quarters, the jig is finally up. The volume of information here is almost dizzying, so we'll do our best
to consolidate the announcements into digestible pieces. Where appropriate, we've added our comments.
Support for H.264 SVC
Polycom has announced support for standards-based scalable video coding (a.k.a. SVC) across much of its portfolio. For those not familiar with H.264 SVC, it is an extension to the H.264 protocol commonly used throughout the video conferencing, streaming, and other media-centric industries. SVC leverages a concept called video scaling. A video stream is "scalable" if the encoded stream can be decoded even if parts of the stream have been removed. Using SVC, the source signal is encoded into a base layer and one or more enhancement layers. As long as the base layer gets through, the resulting signal can be decoded. Each enhancement layer that gets through increases the quality (video resolution, frame rate, motion handling, etc.) of the decoded signal. The ability to remove pieces of the encoded stream makes SVC extremely well suited for video calling over lossy networks (e.g., the Internet) in which packets might be dropped, and calls involving systems and users with varying capabilities and available bandwidth. Due to processor limitations, SVC support will not be available on HDX video endpoints. SVC support is now available (either natively or via software upgrades) on the following products:
- RealPresence Collaboration Server (a.k.a. RMX)
- RealPresence Virtualization Manager (a.k.a. DMA)
- RealPresence Resource Manager
- Converged Management Application (a.k.a. CMA)
- RealPresence Mobile
- RealPresence VisualEdge Executive Desktop (new
- RealPresence Desktop (new product)
- RealPresence Group Series (new products)
Polycom Collaboration Server (RMX) Updates
There are two material announcements here: a new product release and new capabilities across the Collaboration Server (RMX) product line. Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition is a software-based, multi-protocol video bridge that runs on an industry-standard server. As shown in Table 1, the 800s can support up to 20 HD720p30 connections, up to 60 HD720p30 SVC connections, and various combinations in between (e.g., 10 AVC connections and 30 SVC connections). The 800s will support mixed AVC / SVC
meetings from day one. Polycom is positioning the Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition as an ideal solution for customers seeking to cost-effectively expand their existing video network (think software-based distributed architecture) and for mid-market / mid-usage customers who have yet to invest in any video bridging solutions.
The Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition is slated for general availability in December 2012.
Polycom Collaboration Server (RMX) Support for SVC via Software Upgrade has also been announced across the entire Collaboration Server (RMX) product line. RMX owners can add H.264 SVC support via an optional (not free) software update. Once updated, the RMX becomes a dual-function box able to support both H.264 AVC and
H.264 SVC connections. As shown in Table 1, a fully configured and SVC-upgraded RMX 2000 will support up to 60 HD720p30 AVC connections, up to 90 HD720p30 SVC connections, and various combinations in between (e.g. 10 AVC connections and 30 SVC connections). Initially, the SVC-capable RMX 1500s, 2000s, and 4000s will not support mixed AVC / SVC calls. This functionality is expected in Q1 2013.
Polycom RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite
CloudAXIS is a software suite that runs on the RealPresence Platform and is designed to empower enterprise-grade B2B and B2C video conferencing. From the user perspective, CloudAXIS is a browserbased client that allows the user to see the availability (presence status) of his contacts on Skype, Facebook, Google Talk, and other presence / messaging engines in a global address book integrated directly into the application.
From within the CloudAXIS user interface, a user can invite any of those users to a video meeting by simply dragging the person's icon into the top area of the screen. The invited users
then receive an automatically generated IM or email request, including the URL to join the meeting. For example, if a user is logged into Skype, he would receive a Skype IM message including the meeting URL. Once the invited user clicks on the URL, the CloudAXIS client
is automatically launched within any standard browser and the call connects.
CloudAXIS calls leverage the Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server (RMX video bridge), and as a result each user should receive the best experience his device and network
connection will support. CloudAXIS supports HD720p30 video resolution and content sharing, and meetings can include up to 40 participants. Standardsbased video systems in conference rooms can also participate in CloudAXIS meetings by dialing into the video bridge.
Note that CloudAXIS is not a typical software application that must be downloaded and installed on the user's PC. It is a browser plug-in that can be downloaded and installed quickly into HTML5-capable browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Users only need to install the plug-in the first time they use CloudAXIS with a particular browser.
Enterprise managers will appreciate that CloudAXIS is a centrally managed application, so IT administrators can provision the system as they see fit. For example, the IT team can define what the users see on screen (features, branding, etc.), how the calls traverse the network, a
range of security settings, call bandwidth settings, and more. CloudAXIS is expected to ship in two versions: one designed for large enterprises that will be available in late Q1 2013, and one for service providers that will be released later in the year.
Polycom User Experience (UX) Enhancements
Time and time again, surveys show that usability is a key issue impacting the adoption of video conferencing. Polycom is announcing a series of usability enhancements, as a group dubbed the Polycom UX, intended to simplify call launching and management and improve the user experience.
New User Interface: Polycom has overhauled the user interface on its video systems to provide a simpler, more intuitive experience. Key features include dropdown menus, smart menus that recall the last used contact source, a simpler navigation structure using less
technical language, and a simplified new remote control. The new user interface will be available on the newly announced Group Series, on the Executive Desktop system, and on the RealPresence Mobile and Desktop software applications, but not on HDX systems.
SmartPairing Software: Polycom SmartPairing is a new capability that allows a user to pair his iPad with a Polycom group video conferencing system. The pairing function happens automatically when the user enters the conference room. The secret sauce behind this function is that the HDX and Group Series systems emit an ultrasonic tone that the iPad listens for (while running Polycom's RealPresence Mobile 2.0 software) and uses to associate itself with a particular group video system. Once paired, the iPad can manage the video session (launch calls, mute, adjust volume, end calls, etc.). In addition, if the iPad user is already in a video call using his iPad and RealPresence Mobile software, he can "swipe" (meaning transfer using an on-screen swipe) the call from the iPad over to the group video system. Polycom group video systems can now be controlled using the handheld
remote control, a Polycom Touch Control device, aCreston / AMX control system, or any iPad running the Polycom app.
Video and Audio Enhancements: Buried within the Polycom User Experience (UX) enhancementannouncement is support for 1080p60 resolution for both video and content across the newly released Polycom Group series and VisualEdge endpoints and the RealPresence Collaboration Servers (RMXs). In addition, Polycom has added new capabilities to ConstantClarity, a set of experience enhancement technologies designed to improve the audio and video quality during video calls. ConstantClarity includes the previously released Polycom LPR (lost packet recovery technology), full-duplex and surround sound audio, background noise reduction capabilities, and a new capability called NoiseCancel, which suppresses the noise created by keyboard typing, paper shuffling, and plastic bag rustling. The first roll-out of NoiseCancel will be on the RealPresence VisualEdge - discussed later in this Bulletin.
Polycom RealPresence Group Series products
Polycom is also announcing three new group video conferencing systems: the Group 300, which includes Polycom's new EagleEye Acoustic EPTZ camera and which is designed for smaller environments such as "huddle" rooms (starting at an MSRP of $2,999); the Group 500,
which includes Polycom's EagleEye III camera and which is designed for mid-sized spaces such as classrooms and conference rooms (starting at an MSRP of $6,999); and the
Group 700, designed for board rooms, large conference rooms, and other big spaces (pricing TBD).
Polycom RealPresence Group 300 Polycom RealPresence Group 500 Polycom RealPresence Group 700
All three of the Group Series endpoints leverage Polycom's new user interface, support up to HD1080p60 video resolution, content sharing, wide-band audio, and both H.264 AVC (standard and high profile) and H.264 SVC. The systems can use existing Polycom peripherals (cameras, microphones, etc.) and new accessories such as the new Polycom EagleEye Acoustic camera, a 1080p30 electronic pan/tilt/zoom camera designed for smaller
spaces. In addition, the Group 500 and 700 systems offer optional multipoint capability (6-way on the 500 and 8-way on the 700). The Group 300 and 500 systems can be ordered starting on October 9 and will be shipping in November, and the Group 700 is expected to be available
in December 2012.
Polycom RealPresence VisualEdge Executive Desktop
Polycom has also announced a new executive desktop solution. Executive desktop solutions are all-in-one offerings that essentially add video conferencing capabilities (camera, microphone, speakers / sound system, and video codec) to a PC display. Polycom's new executive system, the VisualEdge, sports a 27" wide-screen display, is less than one inch thick, includes a touch control interface and privacy handset, and supports up to HD1080p60
video and content resolution, and HD stereo audio. Like the Group Series systems, the VisualEdge is a dual-stack system supporting both AVC and SVC calling. VisualEdge is expected to be available in April 2013.
Polycom RealPresence Desktop 2.0
RealPresence Desktop 2.0 is a new video collaboration software client for Windows and Mac. Desktop 2.0 offers a series of capabilities including Polycom's new user interface, corporate directory search for video users, the ability to share a specific application, far end camera control, enhanced NAT / firewall traversal, and support for both AVC and SVC calling.
RealPresence Desktop 2.0 is expected to be available in late November 2012 for Windows and in Q1 2013 for Mac.
Polycom RealPresence Mobile 2.0
RealPresence Mobile is Polycom's video collaboration solution for tablets and smartphones. The 2.0 update, which is expected to be available at the end of November 2012, adds support
for SVC for users on iOS and Android devices, a new UI, and SmartPairing support for iPad
Polycom HDX Series v3.1 Software Update
Polycom also announced the release of software version 3.1 for HDX video endpoints. New features include support for SmartPairing, upgrades to the embedded Real-Presence Whiteboard capabilities, support for standard touch screens, support for mouse control, support for sharing Mac content (using PPCIP) through Touch Control, and Touch Control Management via a web interface.
Polycom RealPresence Access Director
Polycom also announced expanded firewall traversal withthe new RealPresence Access Director solution. Access Director enables organizations to conduct H.323 and SIP video calls with users outside their corporate network. A single Access Director server can support up to 1,000 calls, and Access Director supports both AVC and SVC video calls.
Polycom RealPresence Platform Updates
Other announcements include a series of RealPresencePlatform updates to add support for new devices and capabilities.
- RealPresence Virtualization Manager (DMA) v5.1 -- Supports the new video endpoints and video bridges and conference templates, including SVC connections.
- RealPresence Resource Manager v7.1 -- Adds the management of new devices (RealPresence Group series, RealPresence Desktop, and Collaboration Server 800s Virtual Edition), and the scheduling and launching of point-to-point and multipoint SVC calls.
- RealPresence Converged Management Application (CMA) v6.2 -- Adds support for the new Group Series endpoints and RealPresence Desktop software.
- RealPresence Collaboration Server (RMX) v7.8 -- Adds support for SVC - expected release December 2012.
- RealPresence Collaboration Server (RMX) v8.1 -- Adds support for mixed AVC / SVC calls (for a licensing fee TBD). Expected release is 1H 2013.
What Ira thinks: Let's admit it -- we've all taken Polycom's messaging over the past year or two with agrain of salt. On the one hand, the company was making the vast majority of its revenue developing and selling hardware-based video solutions. On the other hand,
the company was telling us time and time again that Polycom is really a software platform company and NOT a hardware vendor. At best we'd call this visionary. At worst we'd call this (and have called this) confusing. Well that was then, and this is now.
The volume of information in this new release is staggering, so I'm going to limit my comments to the major themes
Scalable Video Coding
According to Polycom's press releases and marketingmaterials, Polycom is announcing "the industry's first implementation of open standards-based Scalable Video Coding (SVC) technology." This is a somewhat bold statement that begs to be fact-checked. Obviously
this is not the first implementation of SVC in the video conferencing space. Nor is this the first "standards-based" implementation of H.264 SVC. So the operative word here is "open." Polycom has pledged to make its SVC technology (both the codec implementation and the signaling methodology) available to the UC Interoperability Forum (UCIF) and its members via a free license. With this offer, Polycom is hoping that its version of SVC becomes the industry standard. In our industry, truly interoperable standards are often hard to come by, and the company with the most users often wins. Given that Microsoft has just re-affirmed its intention to adopt Polycom's implementation of SVC, the users are bound to come. Based on this, while I'm not sure I agreewith the term "open," I do believe that making its SVC implementation available to the industry for free is a wise investment by Polycom.
Over the years I've made no secret of my views on H.264 SVC. The way I see it, the SVC protocol is only a small part of the overall value proposition. The real benefit comes from the media routing / switching architecture that scalable codecs, like H.264 SVC, allow. That is a real game changer. Although Polycom is not the first to the table with H.264 SVC, it is the first major industry player (meaning with a significant channel, huge customer roster, and massive install base of video systems) to officially support the new media routing architecture. We
offer kudos to Polycom for taking this step forward and acknowledging that the transcoding architecture that we all know and love is likely NOT the architecture of the future.
The way in which Polycom is supporting SVC is also noteworthy. Instead of creating another separate island of SVC users and systems, Polycom has added SVC support to its existing video bridges via a software upgrade. Once upgraded, the RMX becomes both a media router (for SVC signals) and a transcoding MCU (for AVC signals) in a single box. There is no additional hardware to buy or install, and organizations will not have to modify their respective architectures or dial plans.
Basically, the use of SVC or AVC becomes transparent to the users. If they call in using an SVC-capable endpoint, the RMX will negotiate an SVC connection. If they call in using an AVC-capable endpoint, the RMX will negotiate an AVC connection. It's just that simple.
Although this new capability is not free (pricing has yet to be released -- more on that later), this means that existing Polycom RMX customers can add SVC systems and SVC multipoint calling to their existing videoenvironment without the need for a forklift upgrade.
This not only breathes new life into the RMX platform (released in early 2007, the RMX is coming up on its 6th birthday), but also provides customers with a relatively painless migration path from the H.264 AVC / transcoding world into the H.264 SVC / media routing world.
Hopefully the SVC upgrade will be priced low enough to make this a no-brainer upgrade for existing customers. It doesn't have to be cheaper than competing offerings, but
it should be reachable. Time will tell.
In addition to adding SVC to its existing MCUs, Polycom has also announced a software-based MCU that supportsboth AVC and SVC connections. While the pricing for the Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition (yes --this is a special name that just rolls off the tongue) remains TBD, indications are that this will be priced to meet the budgets of mid-market customers. In otherwords, this will become the starter AVC / SVC MCU for new customers. Today, the 800s is being shipped on a Polycom-provided server, so technically this is not a software product. However, the next logical step (as of yet not confirmed by Polycom) would be a software-only version.
So where are the gotchas in Polycom's new architecture story? The first is that as of this writing, the company is NOT offering a stand-alone media router. The media router functionality resides only within the RMX. For existing RMX customers, this may (or may not) be fine. However, for new customers or those planning a major SVC-based roll-out, the need to purchase an RMX bridgeto access the media router functionality means increased cost in a cost-sensitive economic climate. WR would have liked to see a software-only media router included in this pile of releases, but we can't have everything.
Also noteworthy is the fact that unlike Vidyo -- the company that brought SVC and media routing to the VC market some 5+ years ago -- the media routing architecture is brand new for Polycom. As a result, some of the more advanced capabilities (e.g., cascading of media routers) are not yet available. Over time, we expect that Polycom will fill in the feature gaps. This is not really a Polycom issue per se -- it is a standard theme related to all new architectures. In short -- this is the first step of a journey.
First a disclaimer: the WR team has yet to test the CloudAXIS solution. That aside, we think the CloudAXIS concept makes good sense. CloudAXIS attacks and to some degree solves three key issues that have slowed down the adoption and use of personal video.
Issue #1 -- Who Can I Call? -- As I write this column, I am logged into six different IM services (ICQ, AOL, Yahoo, MSN, Google, and Skype). Perhaps I'm uber-available, but that's another discussion. CloudAXIS acts as a presence proxy and presents my contacts to me within a single UI. While not the only presence-proxy around (I have been using Trillian for many years), CloudAXIS provides this functionality within a conferencing environment
Issue #2 -- How Can I Invite People to a Call? -- Once I find the contact(s) I wish to call, CloudAXIS makes it fast and easy to send a meeting invite. I don't have to switch messaging systems or cut and paste the meeting link.
Issue #3 -- How Can We Join a Meeting? -- In addition to six IM services, I also have five personal VC software clients running on my system. In general, I have no idea which service the people I want to call have loaded on their system, so I need to have all of them. CloudAXIS solves this problem by providing a browser-based, SVCcapable video conferencing client that is only a mouse click away.
From Polycom's perspective, CloudAXIS acts as a conduit driving users to meeting rooms on RMX video bridges, which in turn should drive additional RMX revenue. It also represents a new revenue opportunity for channel partners and service providers to offer CloudAXIS as
a hosted service. CloudAXIS may not solve all of the problems of the world, but it should help people find each other, invite each other to meetings, and join meetings.
For the sake of brevity, which is not easy in this situation, I'll limit the rest of my remarks to a bullet point or two.
- New User Interface -- usability remains one of the most commonly cited issues by end-users, so a cleaner, easier to navigate user interface is obviously good news.
- SmartPairing -- what's not to like here? Users have their iPads and want to use them for video calling. The ability to walk into a conference room and "swipe" your call over to the group video system makes perfect sense. For those of you working from a home office, don't be surprised if SmartPairing causes your dog to start barking at your HDX or Group Series
- system. I'll let you know what happens in my office.
- 1080p60 Video and Content -- this is a welcome evolutionary improvement. If nothing else, I find it interesting that video resolution, which was at one time the lead story for every vendor, is now relegated to the 3rd bullet under a general user experience feature enhancement. We do live in interesting times.
- Group Series Products -- the HDX product line still has quite a bit of life in it. In fact, we use our HDX video systems quite often for both internal and external calls. However, today's users expect stronger performance at lower price points. The Group Series products seem to offer just that. While tempting to focus on the 1080p60 support, we think the new user interface and out-of-the-box SVC-support are the real head-turners here.
- RealPresence VisualEdge Executive Desktop -- while we've never been great fans of the executive system form factor, the unit sales figures speak for themselves. The new VisualEdge system is sleek and sexy and sports the new Polycom UI and SVC support.
- For those seeking an executive system, VisualEdge is clearly a solid option.
Speeds and feeds aside, the real story here is that Polycom is now well on its way toward becoming a software platform solution company. This is no longer vapor-ware or marketing hype. Today the company is announcing a new software-based MCU, a new webbased
video client, new Windows and Mac PC software clients, and updates to other software solutions including the company's mobile client, the DMA Virtualization Manager, the CMA Management Application, and the Resource Manager. Not too shabby for a company whose
DNA is clearly in hardware.
Polycom's new media-routing architecture dramatically cuts the cost of personal video conferencing, which in turn should motivate additional deployments. Although pricing for many of the new software and hardware products has yet to be announced (no matter how hard we pressed, its spokespeople would not budge on this
one), the new offerings do not have to be cheaper than all competitors. They just have to be priced right for today's market.
With this set of releases, Polycom has certainly strengthened its video collaboration product story. This, however, does not negate the fact that Polycom remains a video-centric company forced to compete in a UC-centric world against companies with a broader overall offering (e.g., Cisco) and / or a strong telephony background (e.g., Avaya). Polycom's partnership with
Microsoft will certainly help in this regard, but in the UC world Polycom will likely take a back seat to UCplatform providers who view video as just one of the
communications mediums they support.
In closing, this is an impressive set of announcements -- both in terms of quantity and innovation. But in case you missed it before, you have just witnessed the birth of Polycom 2.0. We'll have more commentary in our subscription services going forward as we spend more time with and explore the products.
About Ira M. Weinstein
Ira M. Weinstein is a senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, and 20-year veteran of the conferencing, collaboration and audio-visual industries.
In his 10+ years as an industry analyst and consultant, Ira has contributed to dozens of articles, white papers, reports, and studies on rich media communications, videoconferencing, streaming and webcasting, audio-visual design and integration, and general business practices.
Ira is the co-manager of WR's Visual Communications Practice (VCP) which provides in-depth coverage of the videoconferencing, streaming, and AV markets.
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