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Polycom's Big Announcement: A Shotgun Blast Of Videoconferencing Advances

October 8, 2012 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
Polycom_UX_User_Interface.jpg Polycom has opened the floodgates from their development team, unloading two years of R&D results today in a webcast from CEO Andy Miller. While each portion of this meta-announcement is interesting in and of itself, this is clearly intended to be a case of "the whole being greater than the sum of its parts." Including all its various elements, this is arguably the largest product launch in the history of videoconferencing. Polycom believes that, with support from all of these new and updated solutions, the Polycom platform will "transform the industry, accelerate mass adoption of video collaboration, and fuel new growth opportunities for the company," and they are quick to reference their "vision to make videoconferencing ubiquitous." While the jury is still out over whether these changes are revolutionary, evolutionary, or somewhere in the middle, the fact remains that it may be an early Christmas for Polycom users. So let's take a look inside Andy Miller's sleigh.

The announcements can be broken up into the following five general categories.

1. Polycom RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite: A cloud-based meeting room solution, designed to allow Polycom users to connect with users of commercial social apps (Skype, Facebook, Gtalk, etc.) and other business apps via a browser window.

2. Polycom RealPresence SVC Enhancements: Polycom's H.264 SVC codec is a major improvement over their previous H.264 AVC. The big news is they are making their new code open to the world, royalty free.

3. Polycom UX: A new "user experience" including a list of 20 new features, such as a new common UI across all devices and 1080p60 support. One particularly slick new feature, SmartPairing, is definitely going to be a favorite at the tradeshows.

4. Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition: The name is a mouthful, but many people have been anticipating Polycom's first software MCU.

5. Polycom Next-Generation Endpoints: Hardware and software endpoints get a refresh. New mid-market solutions added. All leveraging the H.264 SVC protocol and UX enhancements mentioned above.

While it will be impossible to discuss every upgrade and new solution in full detail, we can at least try to dig in and understand some of the bigger items, starting with their new cloud-based interop solution.

Thumbnail image for Polycom_CloudAXIS_UI.jpg
Polycom RealPresence CloudAXIS Suite
If you have been reading my recent articles, you know that cloud-based meeting rooms are hot. They offer group video meeting as a service, without having to buy and maintain a hardware video bridge. Some of the more interesting cloud-based services offer interop between business video products (generally using H.323 or SIP) and commercial services (such as Skype, and Google). This has been an extremely attractive feature for businesses with existing deployments of H.323 meeting room videoconferencing systems, looking to connect with the outside world. From the home worker, to that potential new client, there are a lot of people out there who need to connect, and do not have a traditional meeting room H.323 device at hand.

Polycom has a few twists on the Cloud model with their Cloud-AXIS Suite. First of all, Polycom will not be hosting this solution themselves. There will be no Polycom hosted cloud service with subscriptions for users. This is a product which customers (whether they be end-user companies, or service providers themselves) can implement to create their own cloud service. In a related note, Polycom has added multi-tenancy support to its RealPresence Platform as another nod to service providers.

Tech Note: My understanding is that CloudAXIS does not literally accept calls using Skype and other commercial protocols. It works more like the free service (which I have been testing with pleasing results so far). This type of service creates a contact list by aggregating from your existing social media friend lists. From the zoom UI, you can send your friends meeting invite links, which they will see in their everyday chat client. When your friends click the link, the meeting opens up in a new browser window (which I suspect is powered by WebRTC. Edit: I suspected incorrectly, WebRTC is not in use here), without requiring a client download. It doesn't matter whether your friend sees your invite in Facebook, Google Chat, email, etc., the meeting will always be the same browser-based experience. The video capabilities of the social media clients themselves, whether it be Skype, Google Chat, etc. are not used at all.

Zoom_UI.jpgA real world example of this will help to explain. When I signed up for zoom, it imported my Google Chat contact list into its own UI (see image to the left). The people on the list may have never heard of zoom, but if I click on them, I can send a message to them via Google Chat, just as I would normally do from Google Chat itself. The message can include a clickable link that will open up the meeting. Here is the key difference. That link will not open a standard Google Chat Video meeting, it will open up a new browser window containing the zoom powered meeting.

Most users will not notice the difference. Either way, you get a link via IM and it takes you to a meeting. It may seem a little counterintuitive at first to get a message via Skype that takes you to a non-Skype video meeting, but from the user perspective, all that matters is that the meeting comes up quickly and provides a quality experience. In fact, the browser based, potentially WebRTC powered methodology offers a number of benefits, which I expect to cover soon in future articles.

My Thoughts: Videoconferencing isn't just about connecting meeting rooms anymore. At the very least, it must support the guy who can't make it to a meeting room. While Polycom does have existing desktop and mobile clients, they really did not have a simple way to invite a guest to a meeting. This was such a massive and glaring gap in existing Polycom environments, that it spawned an entire sub-industry of cloud-based interop services which are enjoying enormous success and growth. If CloudAXIS existed 4 years ago, perhaps none of these new upstarts would have had a chance.

It may be too late to stomp out the upstarts, but Polycom can certainly get a piece of the growing cloud interop pie. It will take a while before we can have a good head-to-head comparison between CloudAXIS and competing solutions, and they are differentiated enough that there is no "best" solution for all situations. Regardless, a lot of enterprise businesses like sticking with a single vendor as much as possible. If Polycom's cloud does the job at a competitive price, they will stick with Polycom. Whether or not Polycom can draw back those who have moved on to the upstarts is another question, but regardless there is a still a massive untapped market which is open to anyone.

Polycom RealPresence SVC Enhancements
Polycom released the news of their H.264 SVC implementation a few days early. Those who follow industry politics can ponder whether this was done as a teaser for today's announcements, or whether it was a response to a competitor's announcement regarding SVC for the upcoming H.265 standard. Regardless, this long awaited announcement is certainly good news for Polycom customers.

Let's not mince words here. The SVC battle is on. In the right corner we have Vidyo and in the left we have Polycom. Looking at each fighter's strengths and weaknesses, Polycom has massive resources and decades of industry experience. On the other hand, Vidyo has about a five year head start in SVC implementation in the field, and has been an integral part of SVC development since the beginning. As a result, Vidyo's SVC appears to be more advanced, and may have significant advantages over Polycom's implementation (I am in the process of obtaining more technical info about Polycom's SVC so I can make a better determination). Polycom's best attack is the fact that their SVC endpoints can natively call standard, non-SVC devices. The resulting call won't be SVC, but it will work. Vidyo requires the use of a gateway or interop service to connect with non-Vidyo devices, but they recently announced their new free VidyoWay service to address this issue.

Polycom has added an extra element to the discussion by offering to license their iteration of SVC to anyone who wants it, royalty free. Some may say that this is all about the optics, with Polycom positioning its SVC as an answer to the "island-like" Vidyo SVC implementation. Marketing aside, what are the real world implications for Polycom's royalty free code? Microsoft will be using it, but they have a longstanding relationship with Polycom and we expect the two to share technology. Do we expect competitors like Cisco, LifeSIze and Avaya/Radvision to implement Polycom's SVC into their hardware and software videoconferencing products? Seems unlikely to me, but stranger things have happened. There are certainly startups out there looking to create VC solutions without having to write their own code, but I don't expect to see a major industry sea change resulting from a mass of startups enabled by Polycom's free code.

While we wait for the details to shake out, the bottom line is that Polycom users are about to get a serious experience upgrade with the shift to SVC, particularly when making calls using best-effort, public internet bandwidth. Polycom will be supporting SVC on their existing hardware infrastructure (RMX bridge, DMA, etc.), their new software infrastructure, and their new endpoints. It is unclear whether any of their existing endpoints (i.e. HDX 8000) will support SVC via updates. (Edit: SVC will not be supported on the HDX series.) 

Polycom_VisualEdge.jpg Polycom UX
While clouds and codecs have an important part in making it all work, at the end of the day we really care about the user experience. Polycom is unleashing over 20 new features designed to improve today's videoconferencing meetings. Unfortunately, I have yet to get my hands on the new UI, so I cannot judge it. However, it is rumored to be a significant improvement (the result of years of user testing, focus groups, etc.). We all know that a good UI can make all the difference between a frequently used videoconferencing system, and a dust collector. Polycom will also be supporting 1080p60 resolution, which is certainly impressive, although it is unclear which endpoints will support it and how much bandwidth will be required.

Polycom UX includes one feature in particular that I can't wait to try out. Their new SmartPairing technology is another step in the direction of true person-to-person, rather than device to device calling. SmartPairing allows users to transfer calls in progress from device to device, without dropping the call. Imagine you are in a meeting room and you use your iPad to quickly videocall someone on your contact list, then swipe the call from your tablet to the big monitor in the meeting room. Perhaps I am overly excited on this one, but I have been waiting for someone to invent a way to swipe calls in progress from device to device. It may seem like something designed to elicit "ooos" and "ahhhs" on the demo circuit, but if this is done properly and is truly easy to implement and support, it could be a winner. Check out the YouTube video of it in action and decide for yourself.

Polycom RealPresence Collaboration Server 800s, Virtual Edition
The flexibility and scalability advantages of a software bridge that runs on industry-standard servers are somewhat self evident, and a software Polycom bridge was inevitable. My understanding is that this is not a completely new architecture for Polycom infrastructure, but more like a software version of their existing RMX hardware bridge. Like the RMX itself, it will support Polycom's new SVC in the same meetings as endpoints using older protocols. Not much to say about this one until I can get a peek at the UI and find out how much it is going to cost, but regardless this is an important move for Polycom. The shift away from hardware infrastructure is undeniable and unstoppable. The RMX may continue to sell in the near future, but at least Polycom customers who are looking to ditch the hardware can now do so while staying in the Polycom world.

Polycom_RealPresence_Group_300.jpg Polycom Next-Generation Endpoints
Not content with a new cloud service, a new software bridge, a new user experience, and a new video protocol, Polycom is releasing an entire line of new video endpoints designed for everything from the boss's office, to your iPad. Even the remote control has been completely revamped.

New Personal Systems: Polycom's desktop client and mobile client are going to version 2.0 in order to support the various user experience improvements discussed thus far, including H.264 SVC, and the new UI.

New Room Systems: The Polycom RealPresence Group Series (example shown above) contains three models (the 300, 500, and 700) designed for various sized meeting rooms and various sized budgets. As with the new desktop and mobile clients, these new room systems will support all the latest Polycom features and improvements.

New Executive System: This is a toy for the boss, and it appears to be a really nice one. The Polycom VisualEdge has a 27" screen, is less than inch thick, supports all the latest Polycom features, and can be used as the display for your PC.

Polycom_RealPresence_Group_500_Room.jpg Conclusion
This is certainly a big day for Polycom. When your company makes an announcement from the NASDAQ, it isn't just intended to let customers know about the new products, it is clearly intended to make a statement about your companies goals and future plans. There are a lot of huge changes going on in the videoconferencing world. Polycom, and the rest of the traditional video guard, can continue to watch the upstarts grab customers, or they can embrace these changes and reassert their longstanding industry domination. I don't think it is too late for Polycom to join the virtualized, cloud-based, anywhere, anyone, anytime, future of videoconferencing. But, at least in some of these areas, they do have to play a little catch up.

This doesn't appear to be a complete revolution of Polycom's architecture. Polycom is, at its core, still relying on a transcoding RMX-like bridge (be it software or hardware) to support multipoint and interoperability. However, we are certainly seeing a significant evolution in many of the elements of the Polycom environment and the CloudAXIS solution is somewhat revolutionary for a Polycom product.

Until we get some pricing, and can do some real comparison testing of the new solutions, it is impossible to say how Polycom's new offerings stand up to the competition. But let's be fair, Polycom doesn't put out garbage products and it is safe to assume these products will not fail to impress. It will be very interesting to see how this all affects Polycom's sales and market position in 2013.

David_Maldow, Esq.David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.

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