Lifesize recently announced two new hardware products, as well as continuing advancements to their Lifesize Cloud service. While the details themselves are impressive, I am even more pleased by how well they fit into the new Lifesize story. I spoke with CEO Craig Malloy (above) to discuss the new announcements, their view on the market, and their plans for the future.
During the heyday of VC hardware sales growth, Lifesize was the scrappy underdog with leading HD support, competing against the Polycom and Cisco Goliaths. With the influx of dozens of new cloud video providers in the last few years, Lifesize found itself labeled as part of the “old hardware guard” and had to quickly reinvent itself. A big part of that is going back to their scrappy underdog roots. The days of simply improving on last year’s cameras and codecs are over and Lifesize now has to be as innovative, creative, and risk taking as they were back when they announced the world’s first high definition video system nearly 10 years ago.
A big part of getting back to their roots was the return, last year, of Founder and CEO Craig Malloy. Craig is not afraid of mixing things up; from their strategy, to their product line, even down to their logo (no more “LifeSize”, as they no longer need the capital S in the middle). I spoke with Craig soon after his return last year and in my opinion many of the Lifesize changes reflect changes in Craig’s own perception and perspective on video solutions.
Craig’s time away from the company was very instructive as he shifted from VC vendor to VC user. As CEO of Lifesize he had access to some of the best video engineers on the planet. As a result, I would expect that his video meetings always went off flawlessly. He was insulated from the headaches of connectivity and interoperability and ease of use, and as a result, the company was very focused on user experience and feature sets. He shared with me that during his time away from Lifesize he had a bit of a rude awakening as he saw first hand how difficult it was to get his new company hooked on video. He was even forced to (shudder) use the phone at times. He became inspired with a new mission, to return to Lifesize and and fix this problem.
New Target Market
Historically, Lifesize was competing for space in the boardroom. While the boardroom VC market is still big, it is no longer growing. Many boardrooms now have video in place, and won’t need a refresh for several years. While Lifesize continues to develop and sell these high end systems, their focus is clearly on the new growth market for video, the non-boardroom set. Our desktop warriors and huddle room collaborators need video too, and they can’t afford or support those boardroom systems. This new market is large (there are dozens of huddle rooms for each boardrooom) and mostly untapped (Craig estimates that only 5% of these spaces are currently video enabled). There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle (affordability, ease of use, interop, quality experience, etc.), but the end result may finally be the ubiquitous videoconferencing we have all been waiting for.
The huddle room space is particularly exciting, as there is a lot more going on than merely replicating the boardroom video dynamic on a smaller scale. Boardroom video was primarily sold as a travel alternative. After all, your CEO needs to talk face to face with partners and clients around the world, but you need her to stay at headquarters as much as possible to lead the troops. On the other hand, huddle room video has very little to do with travel reduction, it is more about having full collaborative participation from team members who would otherwise attend by phone. If a member of your sales team is across the country visiting clients for a month, he isn’t going to fly back in the middle just to attend the weekly sales meeting. He would normally attend by phone, and be a partial participant in the meeting at best. Video is the natural upgrade for this situation, as well as for the team member working remotely, or home with a sick child, or missing the meeting for any other reason.
The difference goes beyond the old “travel saving” dynamic compared to the new “upgrade from the phone” dynamic. Huddle rooms are places where actual work gets done. These aren’t meetings to merely delegate and plan, these are meetings where we dig in and complete projects. In other words, it’s all about productivity. Project management methodologies and collaboration tools are transforming the way we work, and allowing teams to truly synergize their skills rather than simply breaking the project into small pieces for each worker. Obviously, having the entire team present, either physically or by video, is highly desired for this type of productive environment. Enabling this requires a new approach to selling videoconferencing.
The key element of this approach is the new Lifesize Cloud service. The budget for huddle rooms, and SMB environments, simply can’t cover the expensive hardware infrastructure generally used to support the big boardroom systems. However, enabling video in these spaces by using a service for ~$25 a month is easily budgetable for a much larger set of organizations. But budget is only part of the problem. Another big issue is support. Boardrooms can often justify having a dedicated IT person to assist with video calls. On the other hand, technologies for the huddle room have to be completely usable by the typical worker without technical support. By providing ease of use on a consumer app level, with business class features and interoperability, Lifesize Cloud is well positioned to address the huddle room, the desktop warrior, the remote worker, as well as the guest attendee, all while integrating seamlessly with your existing boardroom solution (we still want to use those after all).
Craig gave me a peek behind the scenes, and described their global deployment of data centers and network PoPs, offering a impressive level of range and redundancy. An enterprise could purchase video hardware and create their own “cloud” but it would never have the reach and reliability of the Lifesize Cloud. Since its initial release, less than a year ago, the Lifesize Cloud has had 9 updates (on a 3 week cycle), and the improvements have been notable even from my casual testing throughout the year. This clearly isn’t just another offering from Lifesize, but the core of their new strategy, and they are devoting the appropriate resources to its continuing development. With over 700 customers, and tens of thousands of individual users already on the service, they are off to an impressive start. Craig even tipped me off to some substantial improvements coming in the next few updates, but you will have to check back for the details as I am under embargo.
While this article is not the place for a full description of each and every Lifesize Cloud feature, I would like to give two quick examples that highlights their focus on usability. Lifesize offers a Chrome Extension that allows Google Calendar users to schedule video meetings from their browser, without even using the Lifesize Cloud client. Users with the Chrome Extension simply schedule meetings in their calendar using their normal, everyday, Google Calendar workflow, and the extension adds the video information to the calendar entry. Similarly, Lifesize offers an Outlook plug-in that operates much in the same manner. This shows a lot of respect for the user, who doesn’t want to have to create meetings in two systems, or learn a new meeting creation UI. Users want to use the tools they are already comfortable and accustomed to. By empowering their existing calendars to support Lifesize video meetings, we eliminate the learning curve, reduce the stress, and increase the chance of adoption and achieving ROI for your video investment.
While there are now many interop cloud services on the market, Lifesize is not satisfied with merely being among the pack, and is looking to lead with highly requested features such as one click meeting creation from both Lync and web browsers. What really sets this service apart from the pack is the fact that Lifesize can boast of a higher level of integration by offering both hardware and software for the boardroom and huddle room (as well as mobile and desktop) from the same vendor, all supported by the same Lifesize Cloud service. I had a chance to see this for myself when performing some informal testing on their new Icon 400 endpoint through my Lifesize Cloud account.
Lifesize Icon 400 and Icon Flex
Once again, I have managed to bury the lead, but the true value of these new devices only make sense in the context of the Lifesize Cloud and the huddle room target market. I was provided with a demo unit of the Icon 400 (seen above, without included touchscreen speakerphone) and I can say the ease of installation and configuration is much improved from the boardroom systems of the past. No IT support required as you simply plug in power, IP and HDMI to your monitor. Once powered up, an installation wizard appeared on the screen and walked me through the set-up, connecting the unit to my Lifesize Cloud account. While the unit appears to be a simple camera, it actually includes an embedded, full featured codec, which means the system can be used as a stand alone unit, without the Lifesize Cloud, and still connect to any SIP or H.323 endpoint or bridge. Priced at $2,499 (including tabletop touchscreen speakerphone), it won’t break the huddle room budget.
The Icon Flex is essentially the same unit, but without the internal codec, which reduces the price to $1,999 (also including the Lifesize touchscreen speakerphone). Instead of having internal “brains” to make calls, the Icon Flex connects to a PC or Mac via USB, allowing you to bring your own video “brains” to the meeting. Whether you use Lync, Skype, WebEx, or any of the dozens of VC services available on today’s market, the Icon Flex upgrades you from a laptop experience (narrow view, small screen), to a meeting room experience (high quality, wide view camera, big screen). At first blush, one might wonder why Lifesize would want to improve the experience of their competitors’ cloud services, but this product actually makes a lot of sense. There are approximately 100 cloud video room vendors on the market today (expect to see many of them roll up in the next few years) and Lifesize can’t realistically steal all their customers. Those that don’t choose to switch to Lifesize Cloud, could still become Lifesize customers by purchasing the Icon Flex to use with their existing services. A win for the customers and for Lifesize.
During my brief testing, the unit worked flawlessly making calls to other Lifesize Cloud users, as well as to non-Lifesize video devices and services. With its plug and play setup, business quality experience, and consumer grade ease of use and affordability, these new Icon units hit all the major checkmarks. The added benefits achieved by connecting them to the Lifesize Cloud make them even more compelling. It is always dangerous to make predictions, but with the huddle room market heating up, the entire sub $3,000 VC camera market is expected to see some serious growth in 2015. Lifesize, with its strong brand and excellent reputation for VC hardware, is well poised to be one of the leaders in this exciting new target market.