by Debby Young

Company To Watch In the Unified Conferencing Space: Polycom

May 01, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

YOU’D PROBABLY recognize Polycom’s famous tri-corner speaker phones, the gray communicators that crouch on conference room tables around the world. But now the company is looking to take islands of conferencing technology?audio, video and Web collaboration?and unify them into a conferencing experience that lets anyone join in at anytime, from anywhere and via any network connection.

Two of Polycom’s customers?manufacturing conglomerate W.R. Grace and Barton Malow, a $1.2 billion construction company?are already taking advantage of this converging conferencing technology to spur growth and significantly cut operating costs.

“We’re using Polycom’s WebOffice internally to facilitate working sessions among remote teams and have also started using the technology with our customers for troubleshooting and engineering collaboration,” says Guy Welty, manager of global media networks and collaborative services for W.R. Grace.

For example, W.R. Grace content experts can use Polycom technology to present information to as many as 30 customers at once, speeding interaction with the customer and saving the experts travel time. It’s also easy to set up last-minute meetings. The company cut more than $1 million in travel costs because of the unified conferencing technology. By bringing Web casting and audio bridging in-house, Welty estimates that the company saves another $700,000 annually in fees that would otherwise go to service providers such as AT&T, WebEx Communications and Yahoo.

Barton Malow’s CIO, Phil Go, says Polycom’s iPower system has enhanced his company’s ability to share applications and documents during a video call. “The ability to walk into a room, hit dial to connect with colleagues, and then simply plug in a laptop to easily share content and work together as if everyone was in the same location is huge,” says Go.

The videoconferencing industry needs to move into this unified messaging space to sustain the growth it’s seen during the past two years, says Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst for multimedia and broadband at research company In-Stat/MDR. With war, terrorism and high fuel costs, the business climate is primed for a travel-free form of communication. “Having Polycom get into this space is just a really good sign,” says Kaufhold.

While he believes there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone to benefit in this arena?manufacturers and service providers alike?Elliot Gold, president of research company Telespan, raises a cautionary flag. Microsoft recently acquired remote collaboration provider Placeware and will begin bundling unified messaging with its Office 15 product. “This will allow users of Microsoft Office to do many of the things Polycom WebOffice offers, in particular online collaboration through documents, graphics, and even video and voice,” says Gold. “And with Placeware technology added to the mix, the new Office 15 will allow ad hoc, real-time, virtual meetings.” Microsoft has the potential, he thinks, to steamroll over everyone.

WebEx is also promoting its tools well, notes Gold. But Kaufhold says that Polycom and WebEx might be beneficial to one another?opening up opportunities for multiple technologies to enhance collaboration. Kaufhold sees high-end competitors?such as Tandberg and Sony’s Video Conferencing Group, as well as unified messaging software vendors such as Forgent Networks?carving a niche for themselves in the unified conferencing space. “We think the worldwide market for the technology will grow to more than $2.2 billion during 2006,” says Kaufhold.

He feels that if Polycom can bring its technology from the corporate boardroom to the department meeting room, it will make significant inroads into mainstream business communications. But that will mean price cuts. According to Barton Malow’s Go, a unified conferencing system currently runs his company as much as $50,000. But he predicts that competitive pressure and technological innovations will drop Polycom’s per-unit price to the $10,000 range. When that happens, he says, “Nothing would please me more than having a unit in every job site.”