The Talented Mr. Rodman

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Originally posted on NoJitter.com,  Jul 22, 2010

Polycom has been in the news quite a bit this year. Earlier, rumors swirled that the company was in play–likely to be acquired by Siemens Enterprise Communications. In May, Andrew Miller was promoted to CEO, and he declared Polycom was not for sale, and further indicated it was looking for acquisitions itself. Polycom is expecting growth; the company is on track to hire 920 people this year.Polycom remains independent and provides UC components (voice and video) to companies such as Avaya, Cisco, Microsoft, Siemens, Digium, and many more. Many of its customers compete fiercely with one another. It is probably the largest provider of SIP phones, and it is working hard to establish itself as a champion of open standards and interoperability.

Jeff Rodman is the Co-founder and CTO of Polycom. Jeff isn’t the classic CTO, in fact, “classical” might be a better description, as his other passion is the piano. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I had a the opportunity to informally chat with Jeff and it went something like this:

DM: Which do you have more of at home; pianos or Polycom devices?

JR: They both tend to breed when left unwatched; my folks have a VTX 1000 speakerphone so we can talk in HD Voice even though they don’t have Internet, my brother-in-law has borrowed the Yamaha upright I bought on credit when I first graduated from college. But at home, it’s about neck and neck. I use a dual-stack VVX 1500 as the “worker” desk phone, I get high quality voice and video. I slide over to the HDX 4000 HD video exec desktop when there’s a serious video conference. So two there, that’s a match for the two home pianos–a 1924 Chickering, a newer Steinway.

DM: Why do you think there are not very many executives in the UC space today that have “Founder” in their title?

JR: Well, “Founders” often move on after they’ve got a thing running, so by the time a company has grown big enough that you’re looking for that business card, she or he is off founding an even newer company. You see that a lot in tech companies–just locally, my Polycom cohort, Brian Hinman, was an ex-founder of PictureTel, then went on to co-found 2Wire. UC is a space where innovation is the lifeblood, so that trend is happening even more right now. The growth of the segment is fostering a lot of startups right now, and that means a lot of “founder” re-use.

DM: Polycom was an early adopter of SIP, and when compatibility was difficult–Polycom had the benefit of creating a de facto standard. Now that the technology and competitors are maturing, how does Polycom stay relevant in SIP phones?

JR: Two things that people are most unforgiving of in their phones are poor quality and poor reliability. Polycom solved these problems. People love Polycom phones, and speakerphones, because they’re transparent – they improve communications, especially with Polycom HD Voice, so that conversations can flow. Developers love our phones because we’ve made them a terrific place to integrate new networks, try new applications, and develop new services. Beyond that, the definition of “phone” itself continues to expand, and we’re constantly evolving our offering to meet the needs of our customers. The best way to stay competitive–and more importantly, to stay valuable to your customers and partners–is to always present a moving target. That’s what we do: we keep raising the bar.

DM: Do you think wireless video conferencing such as Apple’s FaceTime is a viable and practical technology, or a solution chasing a need?JR: I think that wireless video is one of those abilities that starts with “who would ever use that?” and will quickly move to “does anyone remember when we didn’t have it?” There aren’t a lot of urgent needs that are driving it right now, but people are going to quickly find ways to use it. You know, like the cell phone itself. [Wireless video is] a little clunky to use right now, but there’s going to be a spate of clever tweaks to the feature and the products that make it something that becomes, in hindsight, an obvious necessity. And as it’s used more and more, it will be connecting to all the other modes of UC, meaning that even here, interop’s crucial.

DM: In a given day, how many or what percent of your meetings are video enabled?

JR: About half, because I spend a lot of my time between places or in spots where connectivity is more limited. But Google’s changing that already, and it’s going to be interesting to see how Apple’s FaceTime changes the expectations people have for easy video conversation. I think we’re seeing a new equation emerging, with higher expectation of video everywhere. I want to see you so I can feel better connected.

DM: With the increasing popularity of “soft” endpoints, and the emergence of voice ready laptops that include built-in webcams, do you foresee the elimination of the dedicated UC endpoint?

JR: There are two reasons we’ll continue to need dedicated UC endpoints. First, compromise is an economic necessity in all-function devices like laptops; a computer that’s built with performance equal to that of a purpose-built device will have priced itself out of the market. Just look at the continuing tail chase that keeps cellphone cameras perpetually behind digital cameras. Well, the same situation exists in when sharing functions in a computer. Also, the definition of “endpoint” will continue to change through ongoing evolution of functionality and performance. This drives endpoints to keep becoming better and more useful, but also puts them on substantially different time frame and technology curves than things like laptops.

DM: The announced Cisco Cius appears to be an attempt to redefine the UC endpoint–it has a consumer feel and promises enterprise apps, plus potential from a library of applications. What is your take on where endpoints are headed?

JR: For some really valid reasons, a lot of companies still need “phones,” and we’ve got the best-performing, most reliable “phones” out there, A lot of people also need the best sound and video quality, and they want to use open technologies to boot: that’s where Polycom built its reputation, and still leads.

As a new and relatively niche communication tool, the Cius looks like an interesting first generation. People are looking for solutions that they can extend to other solutions and other platforms, that they can grow. But Cisco tends to take a proprietary approach, and that’s not what organizations and users want. There’s a much wider world of solutions out there, including Microsoft, IBM, Avaya, Google, Skype and so on, and users need to be able to pick best-of-breed multi-vendor solutions. That’s why Polycom’s approach is so critical for users and enterprises, and that’s why we took a leading role in founding the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum, the UCIF. Polycom is very active in mapping the tablet format to unified communications with open standards, and we’re taking a approach that will grow cleanly into open, mixed environments, not just one.

DM: The UCIF is at least initially heavily focused on video. Why does Polycom, a market leader, want to embrace interop, a significant barrier for the smaller competitors?JR: In the long run, any barrier for smaller competitors is a barrier to all of us. New participants in any market often have some of the most exciting ideas, and it’s to the benefit of of the whole market when any innovator can make their voice heard .

Incidentally, the UCIF’s focus is on UC. Video is one important element of UC, but unified communications, the whole of it, remains the charter and the primary interest of all the people involved in UCIF. [Note: Rodman is Polycom’s UCIF representative].

DM: Snom is aggressively marketing their SIP phones as an option for Microsoft’s OCS deployments – Polycom is instead offering Microsoft designed/licensed phones. Why not position the SoundPoint phones for OCS?

JR: We are teaming with Microsoft to provide the richest communications experience possible within a Microsoft UC environment. Snom is taking an existing product and making it “work” in a Microsoft UC world, whereas Polycom partners with Microsoft to provide an end-to-end solution that is natively integrated and offers the full feature set that Microsoft UC enables.

DM: Google and Skype are using VP8 instead of the more predominant H.264, and with Google’s plan to make VP8 royalty-free, do you see H.264 declining in importance as an enterprise video codec?

JR:. Neither Google nor Skype have business models that depend on a particular algorithm, very few companies do. They’re both selecting an algorithm because it is best suited to how they want their users to connect and communicate. At the end of the day, the ITU standards like H.261, H.263 and H.264 have been best and most universal at filling those needs–even Apple’s FaceTime has H.264 at its core. New applications will sometimes start with new techniques, but existing techniques will usually adapt to include them, and history shows that video compression is no exception. To this point, H.264 continues to show an advantage in coding quality and efficiency–especially H.264 High Profile, which nearly halves the data rate while preserving quality–and I expect that between this kind of performance and its wide acceptance to date, H.264 will continue to be an important element of mission-critical video communications.

DM: Which concerns you more as a competitive threat regarding UC endpoints; alternative SIP based phones, proprietary “PBX” phones, or cellular devices?

JR: Alternative SIP phones are a good thing because that’s how a healthy competition works: make the rules fair and open, let everyone put together their best answer to the need, and let the customer decide. Every customer has different needs and different criteria to some extent, so you get continued evolution, new features, and responsive pricing. Customers are figuring out for themselves that they’re trapped when they don’t have that freedom, which is why proprietary PBXs don’t bother me much: the customers are getting smart enough to stay away from closed solutions anyway. As far as cellular, that’s not a good overall solution for a lot of enterprises; we meet them with SIP-based wireless phones, like our SpectraLink products, which combine reliability with versatility.


Dave Michels