Polycom CEO talks mobile telepresence

Videoconferencing is available for desktops and even through specially designed rooms called telepresence systems, but on wireless handhelds? According to Robert Hagerty, who has been CEO of Polycom Inc. for 10 years, it could be widely available soon.

Question: Polycom has just had a record year for revenue. Why has it taken videoconferencing so long to arrive?

Robert Hagerty: We have a great value proposition with video communications, and it has taken a long time in coming. Originally, we were hobbled by a telephony infrastructure that ran on ISDN, but now it is on Internet Protocol. You can’t believe how incredibly good the video quality is today. We at Polycom offer anything from desktop to PC to video that runs on phones to telepresence, all seamlessly built and high-definition. It’s spooky-good video. You could take a penny and show Lincoln as he sits in the Lincoln Memorial on the back. That’s how good it is. The integration with other phone and desktop communications has also leapfrogged.

Q: Is the value proposition about saving on business travel?

RH: At Polycom, we have video for anybody who wants it, and that’s up to 2,000 people in our workforce. The value proposition is there, our travel budgets are less, and we’re not spewing carbon from planes or driving or in a cab. The productivity level is much higher. I can meet eight to 10 customers a day on videoconference, and I have great meetings in high definition, face to face.

Q: When will videoconferencing be available on wireless handhelds?

RH: We have videoconferencing solutions working over 3G networks with Ericsson in Italy, running on the Palm. It’s live TV, a live videoconferencing hook through our enterprise network and through 3G and into the backbone, which connects a person to the office so they can talk on a handheld. It looks great, but it’s not high definition. You can get high-definition videoconferencing on a PC. It easily downloads.

We’re doing it over Wi-Fi, too, so people sitting in airports can be on videoconference calls with their laptops while they are waiting. That’s live videoconferencing in high def. It’s a full 30 frames a second, depending on the network. That’s TV quality.

Q: How big will videoconferencing on handhelds be?

RH: As videoconferencing migrates from a niche technology to the mainstream in the enterprise, you’ll want videoconferencing for everyone, everywhere. It’s a huge thing. It’s part of a wave that’s starting to crest and affecting everyone. To be provocative, I’d say voice-only will be a rarity on a wireless handheld, and videoconferencing will be the norm, sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Q: I can see some drawbacks to that.

RH: The handheld does have the issue that holding it with a hand means it’s not a steady camera image. The image needs to be higher than most people working on a handheld provide, since you’ll be looking up somebody’s nose if you aren’t careful.

We’ve developed video products for this, and the camera angle is important. The early videophones generally had the screens too low, so the camera looked up your nose. Also, the video can be a little like the video from The Blair Witch Project, with the moving images, with the handheld moving up to the head, to the eye.

Q: So you have researchers looking into this?

RH: Yes, we have 600 people, nearly one-third of the company, in research and development, and some are busy researching and building gateways to the handheld. We never make the phones, but they will require lots of processing power for video. As the networks get more bandwidth, any of the new smartphones will work.

Q: There are several major companies, including Cisco, offering videoconferencing products, some of them telepresence systems. How are you distinguishing yourselves from them?

RH: The industry is moving faster and faster, yes. We want to create a very immersive experience, the most immersive in the world with telepresence. We want you to feel like you are in the room with the other person. We’re pushing for something bigger, something beyond high definition. The other consideration we address is, how much of an available pipe can your organization provide? Thehome office couldn’t really deliver videoconferencing quality over cable or DSL, because there was not enough bandwidth.

Now, with algorithms, we have the unique ability to detect lost packets and create beautiful video. We excel at that and will continue to challenge the industry on how to create ease of use and get more picture for less money.

Q: Your sales of traditional voice products have declined recently, so is there a shift from voice to video?

RH: Voice over IP is more challenging, and people are delaying on those purchases. We’ve found that people might already have a phone and [don’t need] a new one. There’s nowhere near the return on investment from VoIP compared to videoconferencing.

Q: So, what is the videoconferencing ROI?

RH: The ROI varies depending on the travel a company does, but from the reduced carbon footprint and dollars saved on travel, the return on investment is six months. Our team found the ROI was 265 per cent in the first year.

Q: People seem to do any kind of meeting in telepresence, but are there some things you would never do, like fire somebody over telepresence?

RH: We do performance reviews over videoconference, and people love it. That’s performance reviews, not layoffs.

Q: How does 2009 look for your company and the videoconferencing industry?

RH: We’ll see double-digit growth in video revenues, but not at the level of 2008. It’s a growth year, and we expect the voice division to pull through. The analysts haven’t really finished their 2009 forecasts.

Q: How much of a threat is Cisco, given how it seems to enter markets and conquer them?

RH: We still have the largest number of installed units in videoconferencing deployed, about 650,000 globally. The noise Cisco is making is a net gain for our industry. We welcome competition, but we think we outplay them.

Dossier Robert Hagerty

Name: Robert Hagerty

Title: CEO Organization: Polycom Inc.

Location: Pleasanton, Calif.

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