Joseph Burton, Polycom’s new chief strategy and technology officer, comes to the company from one of the key jobs in the enterprise voice and video business, having been vice president and chief technology officer for unified communications at Cisco Systems. Though Polycom is smaller than Cisco, with revenue just under US$1 billion last year, it has a long history in enterprises as a maker of desk phones, conference phones and videoconferencing systems, as well as the infrastructure behind them.
Burton joined Cisco through the company’s acquisition of ActiveVoice and worked there for about 10 years. But in an interview with the IDG News Service this week, he pulled no punches in distinguishing Polycom’s products from those of its larger rival.
IDGNS: What did you learn at Cisco?
Burton: Cisco is a fantastic company. I learned an awful lot about addressing the needs of customers worldwide, rather than just in a specific segment, and small to large.
IDGNS: What can you do to make Polycom a stronger competitor to Cisco?
Burton: The enterprise unified communications market is growing very, very rapidly. It’s going to be a $14 billion-plus industry by 2015. What attracted me to Polycom is that, in addition to being a market leader, they’re solely focused on addressing the needs of that fast-growing unified communications market.
IDGNS: Why do I still need a desk phone?
Burton: For the foreseeable future, we think that communications is becoming more important, not less. People want to be able to communicate the way they want it, where they want it . When you’re sitting in your office, the best experience, for the foreseeable future, is going to be with a dedicated piece of hardware that does a fantastic job on voice and video.
IDGNS: What’s the role of wireless in unified communications today, and where do you see that going over the next few years?
Burton: In a campus environment, Polycom has a very strong position with our 802.11 Wi-Fi phones. We think that’s an important part of the unified communications puzzle. We think true mobile phones, meaning 3G-, 4G-type phones, are an important part of the unified communications solution as well. We see both voice-type solutions and video-type solutions on mobile handsets being critical as we go forward. We see very strong pickup with our existing (Wi-Fi) solutions in retail, hospitality, education, health care and other places. Primarily, today, Wi-Fi is the technology that’s most prevalently being used for enterprise-class wireless communications. Obviously, we have a lot of innovation going on and we’re watching very closely the 3G and 4G markets, and I think you’ll see even stronger Polycom solutions there over time.
IDGNS: Given Cisco’s introduction of the Cius and Avaya’s recent announcement of the Flare, does Polycom have to come out with a tablet?
Burton: No, Polycom does not have to come out with a tablet. I think Polycom will take a close look at what’s going on with what we’re hearing from our customers with our channel, and we’ll figure out exactly what kinds of end points and infrastructure we need. Polycom, of course, prides itself on being a very open interoperable solution today, so I have a high degree of confidence that through our standards work and our interoperability through the UCIF (Unified Communications Interoperability Forum) and other standards bodies, that we’ll have great interoperability with some of the devices you already mentioned. Whether or not we actually come out with our own is yet to be determined by the market.
IDGNS: What’s your view on the wisdom of having a group like UCIF?
Burton: In general, I’m a huge believer in effective, real-world standards bodies that can actually drive practical interoperability, so someday in the not-too-distant future, you can put in the unified communications solution of your choice at IDG … and we can put in the unified communications solution of our choice here, and we should have the reasonable expectation that when we call each other, we’ll get something much richer than an old-school narrowband voice call. The only religion I have around standards is, we need ones that really work in the real world.
IDGNS: How did Cisco’s acquisition of Tandberg change the unified communications market?
Burton: There are customers that are indeed looking for a tightly integrated, primarily one-vendor solution like Cisco has to offer. There are [also] customers that are very focused on having an open, standards-based, interoperable platform that will work across all the investments they already have. In the past, Tandberg and Polycom were probably seen as somewhat comparable third-party solutions. So, for a customer that is very focused on protecting their existing investments … I would have to think those customers are probably a little bit more focused on Polycom now, and probably see Tandberg as more of a Cisco-centric kind of solution.
IDGNS: What can enterprises look forward to as they look to the age of unified communications?
Burton: I think about this quite a bit. I tend to carry a chief technology officer title, I have many patents … but I really think what we hear from our future-leaning enterprise customers is, it’s not the new communications capabilities that they really want. They’re looking for things that will accelerate core business processes. Anyone can get into a narrowband audio call with 15 other people for two hours, and we all know how that turns out. The real key of unified communications is to anticipate the needs of the people on the call, to understand the context of the call, and help make better, smarter, more intelligent decisions.