Plantronics Pumps US$2 billion into Polycom in Open-Plan Office Smarts Pair Off

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By Ryan Martin | 2Q 2018 | IN-5108

The audio ensemble is weaving its way into the fabric of future workflows with the rising popularity of open-plan office designs and a general desire to work smarter rather than harder.

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Plantronics is acquiring Polycom for US$2 billion (US$948 million cash + US$690 million debt + US$362 million stock/equity) in exchange for a 16% stake in the combined entity (Polycom shareholders) and a joint pathway to annual run-rate cost synergies of US$75 million within 12 months of transaction close.

Polycom’s offerings primarily serve conference, desktop, video, and collaborative environments, while Plantronics brings a world-class suite of headsets (hardware), software, and soundscaping technologies to the table.

While the bigger vision is to accelerate and support a more elastic enterprise—one that is able to leverage powerful analytics, video, and audio touchpoints for new communication and collaboration experiences—a combined Plantronics/Polycom powerhouse is exactly what is needed to put solution sale conversations within reach.

From Brokers and Bots to (Virtual) Assistants that Actually Assist


Voice is quickly becoming the favored medium for access and control. In your pocket, it is Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, and Siri. In the home, it’s HomePod, Home Mini/Max, and Echo Plus. The same technologies at home and on the go are also gaining ground in the workplace. If last year was all about integrating third-party apps into digital assistant hubs (Amazon Echo), this year is about integrating digital assistant smarts (software) into third-party hardware—including everything from light switches and shower heads to countertop appliances, cars, and car keys. The reason? A natural language User Interface (UI) homogenizes the way we interact with disparate devices in heterogeneous environments.


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At the end of March, Google's connected home hardware (Home, Home Mini, and Home Max) quietly added support for third-party Bluetooth speaker integrations. One week later, Amazon added a new feature called Alexa Announcements to its Echo smart speaker product line. Today, the feature acts like a one-way intercom that can be used to broadcast messages to other Echo devices in addition to compatible third-party Bluetooth speakers. But what if these newly networked nodes were used as for input rather than for output?

Two-way communication—for people, products, and technology—is a logical next step on the product roadmap. It is where we start to see incumbent players like Nuance, which is launching a "cognitive arbitrator" to connect and integrate disparate Virtual Assistants (VAs); financial institutions like TD Bank, which is leveraging biometric voice data to authenticate customer service calls; and multinational software providers like SAP, which acquired French Natural Language Processing (NLP) startup Recast.AI to refine its conversational interface, bot, and (information) brokerage offerings.

Smart Workspaces: The Solution Sale


Office acoustics impact both efficiency and efficacy of the organization from the ground up (employees).

Internet of Things (IoT) applications have the benefit of architecting, orchestrating, and enabling systems, subsystems, and subsystem components that work in harmony. The challenge is for people is perception; smell, for example, is the strongest of the detectible senses, while the eye (sight) is the fastest moving organ in the human body. On its own, each sensory input elicits a different response, at different intervals. Together, they create an entourage effect that we as humans perceive as context—of environment, situation, or interaction.

Humans have brains that naturally fuse these silos of information in ways that make sense. When it comes to acoustics, however, machines do not…but they are working on it. Software can combine data from various sources to establish understanding (of an event, interaction, or process); end user applications can surface contextual and or actionable insights; rules engines and advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) algorithm development can be used for automation; and connected asset management tools can be used to free up Information Technology (IT) professionals for higher value Operation Platform (OP) engagements.

Historically, sound-masking systems used random steady-state electronic noise signals to drown or cancel out ambient or otherwise intrusive sound. More recently, however, sound-field analysis from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that the use of "natural" sounds is equal, if not better than, conventional sound-masking methods in areas such as cognitive function, focus, and worker satisfaction. In a separate study jointly published by Acta Acustica united with Acustica and the European Acoustics Association (EAA), subjects underwent a series of tests in each of seven sound conditions: speech, silence, and five masked speech conditions—filtered pink noise, ventilation noise, instrumental music, vocal music, and the sound of spring water. Compared to the silent condition, short-term memory performance was found to deteriorate during speech, music, and most other masked sound conditions. The sound of spring water was the standout; performance improved.

This is what Plantronics found prior to the release of Habitat Soundscaping, an intelligent acoustic management service that uses nature-inspired audio and visual cues (a real or virtual waterfall, depending on environment) in combination with ambient speech-minimizing software to improve productivity and comfort for both individuals and teams. Interestingly enough, this visual component is quite important; without it, users perceive the sound of running water as a symptom of a water leak or other maintenance issue. Picture a similar scenario but with the benefit of the Polycom assets: something like acoustic fence technology could be used to virtually partition a room, serve a smaller subset of users, and close the feedback loop between the product, OPs, and IT teams; Alexa for Business integration could help insulate the duo from some of the most formidable competition; and streaming Audio/Video (A/V) as well as document sharing could be layered into soundscaping-type offerings for a more complete, smart workspaces solution sale.