Category Archives: Skype

Bad and Good in Avaya’s Pending IPO

We don’t know when Avaya will have its IPO, but we learned a couple weeks ago that the company will trade under the symbol ‘AVYA‘ on the New York Stock Exchange.

Long before that, back in June, Avaya first indicated that it would file for an IPO, from which it hoped to raise about $1 billion. Presuming the IPO goes ahead before the end of this year, Avaya could find itself valued at $5 billion or more, which would be about 40 percent less than private-equity investors Silver Lake and TPG paid to become owners of the company back in 2007.

Proceeds for Debt Relief

Speaking of which, Silver Lake and TPG will be hoping the IPO can move ahead sooner rather than later. As parents and controlling shareholders of Avaya, their objectives for the IPO are relatively straightforward. They want to use the proceeds to pay down rather substantial debt (total indebtedness was $6.176 billion as of March 31), redeem preferred stock, and pay management termination fees to its sponsors, which happen to be Silver Lake and TPG. (For the record, the lead underwriters for the transaction, presuming it happens, are J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs & Company.)

In filing for the IPO, Avaya has come clean not only about its debts, but also about its losses. For the six-month period that end on March 31, Avaya recorded a net loss of $612 million on revenue of $2.76 billion. It added a further net loss of $152 million losses the three-month period ended on June 30, according to a recent 10-Q filing with the SEC, which means it accrued a net loss of approximately $764 million in its first three quarters of fiscal 2011.

Big Losses Disclosed

Prior to that, Avaya posted a net loss of $871 million in its fiscal 2010, which closed on September 30 of 2010, and also incurred previous losses of $835 million in fiscal 2009 and a whopping $1.3 billion in fiscal 2008.

Revenue is a brighter story for the company. For the one months ended June 30, Avaya had revenue of more than $2.2 billion, up from $1.89 billion in the first nine months of fiscal 2010. For the third quarter, Avaya’s revenue was $729 million, up from $700 million in the corresponding quarter a year earlier.

What’s more, Avaya, which bills itself as a “leading global provider of business collaboration and communications solutions,” still sits near the front of the pack qualitatively and quantitatively in  the PBX market and in the unified-communications space, though its standing in the latter is subject to constant encroachment from both conventional and unconventional threats.

Tops Cisco in PBX Market

In the PBX market, Avaya remained ahead of Cisco Systems in the second quarter of this year for the third consecutive quarter, according to Infonetics Research, which pegged Avaya at about 25 percent revenue share of the space. Another research house, TeleGeography, also found that Avaya had topped Cisco as the market leader in IP telephony during the second quarter of this year. In the overall enterprise telephony equipment  market — comprising sales of PBX/KTS systems revenues, voice gateways and IP telephony — Cisco retains its market lead, at 30 percent, with Avaya gaining three points to take 22 percent of the market by revenue.

While Infonetics found that overall PBX spending was up 3.9 percent in the second quarter of this year as compared to last year, it reported that spending on IP PBXes grew 10.9 percent.

Tough Sledding in UC Space

Meanwhile, Gartner lists Avaya among the market leaders in its Magic Quadrant for unified communications, but the threats there are many and increasingly formidable. Microsoft and Cisco top the field, with Avaya competing hard to stay in the race along with Siemens Enterprise Networks and Alcatel-Lucent. ShoreTel is gaining some ground, and Mitel keeps working to gain a stronger channel presence in the SMB segment. In the UC space, as in so many others, Huawei looms as potential threat, gaining initial traction in China and in developing markets before making a stronger push in developed markets such as Europe and North America.

There’s an irony in Microsoft’s Lync Server 2010 emerging as a market-leading threat to Avaya’s UC aspirations. As those with long memories will recall, Microsoft struck a valuable UC-centric strategic alliance — for Microsoft, anyway — with Nortel Networks back in 2006. Microsoft got VoIP credibility, cross-licensed intellectual property, IP PBX expertise and knowledge — all of which provided a foundation and a wellspring for what Microsoft eventually wrought with  Lync Server 2010.

The Nortel Connection

What did Nortel get from the alliance? Well, it got some evanescent press coverage, a slippery lifeline in its faltering battle for survival, and a little more time than it might have had otherwise. Nortel was doomed, sliding into irrelevance, and it grabbed at the straws Microsoft offered.

Now, let’s fast forward a few years. In September 2009, Avaya successfully bid for Nortel’s enterprise solutions business at a bankruptcy auction for a final price of $933 million.  Avaya’s private-equity sponsors saw the Nortel acquisition as the finishing touch that would position the company for a lucrative IPO. The thinking was that the Nortel going-out-of-business sale would give Avaya an increased channel presence and some incremental technology that would help it expand distribution and sales.

My feeling, though, is that Avaya overpaid for the Nortel business. There’s a lot of Nortel-related goodwill still on Avaya’s books that could be rendered impaired relatively soon or further into the future.  In addition to Nortel’s significant debt and its continuing losses, watch out for further impairment relating to its 2009 purchase of Nortel’s assets.

As Microsoft seeks to take UC business away from Avaya with expertise and knowhow it at least partly obtained through a partnership with a faltering Nortel, Avaya may also damage itself through acquisition and ownership of assets that it procured from a bankrupt Nortel.

Magor Offers “Telecollaboration” to SMEs

Some have accused telepresence of being the preserve of the rich.

To be sure, room-based telepresence has an exclusive aura, conferred by its prohibitive price and imperious requirement. It is a proficient, if costly, means of bringing meeting participants together around a virtual boardroom table, but it is relatively inflexible and stiffly formal when asked to share the stage with data-based collaboration.

For verisimilitude, though, telepresence sits at the pinnacle of the video-meeting throne. It is followed in the hierarchy by videoconferencing, which covers a broad swatch of ground and extends from specialized systems to software-based services that provide a best-effort experience on nearly any device with a broadband Internet connection. With regard to the latter, think Skype.

It has become readily apparent, in fact, that the market for video communications is richly segmented rather than monolithic. Cisco would like to get more than its “fair share” of the market action, but its current portfolio (even with Tandberg) remains vulnerable to competitive incursions in the SME space, where price sensitivity is more acute than in the rarefied environs of the world’s largest transnational corporations. To be fair, though, even the world’s corporate kingpins are holding their wallets a little tighter as we move into a “new normal” of permanent cost controls and reduced growth scenarios.

Macroeconomic misgivings aside, there is also that unsettled question about how elegantly collaboration can be brought, figuratively and literally, into the videoconferencing picture.

One company taking its best shot at addressing the challenge is Magor Communications Corporation. The company calls what it does “telecollaboration,” which it defines as an “emerging category of communications solutions (that) . . . . combines high-definition (HD) videoconferencing and advanced collaboration capabilities to enable life-like interactions and experiences no matter where people are located.”

Put simply, Magor is trying to fuse adaptable high-quality (1080p, where possible) videoconferencing with data-based collaboration.

The company, which is now raising a round of financing, recently gave me an opportunity to experience its technology firsthand.  I came away impressed by the price-performance proposition, the quality and naturalness of the videoconferencing experience, and the smooth interplay of collaboration and videoconferencing. The user interface also seemed uncluttered and surprisingly simple. Like the best telepresence and videoconferencing systems, Magor’s facilitated a natural eye-to-eye conversation without getting in the way.

The Magor technology doesn’t give you all the visual brilliance of, let’s say, Cisco’s telepresence, but it also won’t give mid-sized enterprises sticker shock. That factor, and some others I’ll mention at the end of this piece, could be pivotal to the company’s success.

If you ask Magor what sets it apart from the pack, it cites four main differentiators.

At the top of its list is a patented video-compression technology that allows Magor to stream HD video at 2 Mbps, peaking at 4 Mbps. In contrast, it says, its competitors transmit at 5 Mbps, peaking at 30 Mbps, to accommodate one 1080p stream. When the network is heavily congested, Magor says, its system can dynamically and gracefully adjust the video quality to accommodate constrained resources. If network conditions improve, Magor readjusts video quality accordingly. To effect these quality adjustments, Magor’s software samples the video stream multiple times per second.

A second point of differentiation, according to Magor, is that its functionality is delivered entirely in software that runs on industry-standard, off-the-shelf hardware. Magor says it is looking to port its software to a range of platforms, including increasingly powerful notebook PCs, tablets (such as the iPad), and smartphones.

Magor says another distinguishing characteristic is its support for original-format data collaboration rather than for a bandwidth-sapping H.323 “collaboration image” pushed through a side channel.

Finally, Magor points to how easy its systems are to use. To add users or data collaboration to a conference, participants need only push a button on a SIP phone or click on a mouse.

With regard to pricing, a single-display system goes for approximately $15,000, with a dual-display system selling for about $30,000, and a three-display configuration going for $45,000. The two- and three-display configurations are offered with the option to purchase additional HDTV cameras, which increases the price of the packages by about $2,000.

Launched in 2006 under the aegis of Wesley Clover — an investment firm chaired by Terry Matthews, founder of Mitel and Newbridge Networks — Magor sports an accomplished executive team. Mike Pascoe, the company’s CEO, served in the same role at Meriton Networks and PairGain Technologies. Dan Rusheleau, Magor’s executive VP of product development, co-founded Newbridge. Not surprisingly, considering its progenitor, the entire executive team comprises alumni of Terry Matthews’ corporate constellation.

I suspect there’s a potentially sizable market for what Magor is selling, but it will face competition from above — Cisco, HP, Polycom — and from below, where Logitech’s LifeSize and the cheap-and-cheerful Skype are among the players.

The big challenge for Magor will be to establish strong business partnerships that give it the industry profile, channel reach, and business scalability to gain separation from the pack. It is busily building OEM strategies, vertical-market plans, and reseller networks. It already has Mitel in its camp, and it is working on a series of other agreements.

Reviewing the Skype Deal

If the battle for Skype were a television series, it would have been equal parts soap opera and suspense thriller. It nearly segued into courtroom drama, but it wouldn’t have been a good one, likely way too one-sided for engrossing fare.

In the end, it was the specter of a courtroom rout that got the principals to the table to hammer out a settlement that leaves a few people happy, a few people content, and a few people disconsolate. There were winners, losers, and those who fall somewhere between those unambiguous extremes.

I think Om Malik has done an excellent job categorizing how the various players fared. His blunt assessment is keenly accurate, cutting through the cant and dishonest spin of those who would try to persuade us that we can trust neither our own lying eyes nor our critical faculties.

As far as the official breakdown, eBay finally gets to sell majority ownership of Skype to a consortium of investors, though the composition of those investors — and the overall percentage of the company they’ll take off eBay’s hands — has changed.

The key paragraph, excerpted from the press release announcing the settlement, is this one:

“As part of the settlement agreement, Joltid and Skype founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis will join the investor group, contributing Joltid software and making a significant capital investment in exchange for a 14 percent stake in Skype. As a result, Silver Lake and other investors including Andreessen Horowitz and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), will together hold 56 percent of Skype and eBay will retain 30 percent. As previously announced, eBay will receive approximately $1.9 billion in cash upon the completion of the sale and a note from the buyer in the principal amount of $125 million. The deal, which values Skype at $2.75 billion and is not subject to a financing condition, is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2009.”

In the original ill-fated arrangement, announced September 1, eBay sought to sell 65 percent of Skype to a consortium of investors that was led by Silver Lake. That consortium included Index Ventures but excluded Skype’s founders, Zennstrom and Friis, who — by the time this story runs its course — will have been both sellers and buyers of Skype in separate transactions with eBay.

Like the doomed proposal that preceded it, today’s announced agreement values Skype at about $2.75 billion.

Index Ventures and Mike Volpi, a partner in that firm, are not part of the deal. Index would like us to believe that this arrangement occurred entirely of its own volition, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Here is what Danny Rimer, a partner at Index Ventures, had to say about the Skype settlement:

“We are pleased that Skype will now be able to put litigation behind it, and we wish Josh Silverman, his team and the Skype investors well in continuing to grow a great business. Although Skype has the potential to be a great investment, the deal terms changed for Index such that it no longer matches our investment criteria and thus we have decided not to participate in the transaction.”

Om Malik contends rightly that this is . . . er, poppycock.

I don’t know whether Index could have said anything to take the sting out of the loss it sustained, on multiple fronts, in this whole Skype imbroglio. Nonetheless, the quote Rimer provides is embarrassing and ungracious. There are times when it’s best to say nothing, and this qualified as one of them.

It’s all over but the shouting now. With 23 directors, Skype might want to soundproof the boardroom.

Skype Settlement Said to be Imminent

Although a settlement seems to be in place — with Skype founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis receiving a 10-percent equity stake in Skype, plus two board seats, and with Index Ventures and Mike Volpi getting banished from the deal — a formal announcement including all the pertinent details has yet to be delivered by the legal gods to us mere mortals.

It shouldn’t be long, though.

Network World Reprises Volpi’s Medley of Email Hits

For those who cannot get enough of the intrigue, scheming, and shenanigans surrounding the boardroom-to-courtroom-to-boardoom battle for the ownership of Skype, Brad Reese at Network World reproduces a medley of Michael Volpi’s greatest email hits.

Thrill to Volpi’s message about “getting the father of SIP to jump ship” from Cisco. Enjoy his follow-up message to Egon Durban, managing director at private-equity firm Silver Lake, regarding the need to fill out a SIP engineering team with five or six solid VoIP software engineers. Marvel at Volpi’s disparagement of former colleagues and Skype-deal confederates.

Moreover, consider that he was writing all these email hits while still employed as the CEO of a company (Joost) that was founded and run by the same duo, Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who founded Skype before selling it to eBay and who entertained hopes of owning it again. Also ponder that much of the same underlying p2p software used at Joost, at least originally, also served as the architectural foundation for Skype.

Finally, consider that Volpi was said to have led and been involved in an architectural transition at Joost that saw the video-sharing site move from the p2p foundations on which it was based — using the same Joltid technology that was licensed by Skype — to a client-server architecture that employed Flash-based web clients at the end points.

At minimum, there would appear to be superficial similarities between the architectural overhaul that had occurred at Joost and what Volpi proposed for Skype.

Reputation Bashing in Joltid-Volpi Brouhaha?

In a short piece summarizing and commenting on the latest developments pointing toward a settlement of the legal conflicts and ownership of Skype, All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher opines as follows:

Skype founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis had sued Index and also partner Michelangelo Volpi via tech companies they control, Joltid and Joost.

The pair had already been in a legal battle over software licensing issues with eBay (EBAY), the company that had sold Skype to in 2005.

They then accused Index and Volpi, employing a reputation-bashing style, of using confidential information as part of a consortium bid to acquire a large chunk of Skype.

Well, did Zennstrom and Friis use “a reputation-bashing style” in their litigious cage match with Mike Volpi? I suppose that’s one interpretation of what occurred, but it’s not the only one.

For the record, I read Volpi’s email correspondence, written while he was CEO of Joost, adumbrating his plan to take control of Skype and perhaps serve as chairman of that company. I am not a lawyer, and I am not crazy enough to pass legal judgment on what Volpi said and did while sitting in the big chair at Joost, but it seems to me at least some of his behavior, in that role, was ill-advised and ethically questionable.

I am not the first, nor the last, to reach that determination.

In closing, I’ll just say that even though one’s reputation can be bashed, if one’s integrity is as adamant and unyielding as aggregated diamond nanorods, the bashing will do neither significant nor lasting damage. Conversely, if one is not quite an impregnable ethical fortress, the bashing of one’s reputation can do serious harm.

Reported Skype Settlement Sees Founders Taking Ownership Stake; Index Ventures Out

The battle between the founders of Skype, its current owners (eBay), and others who wish to own it will reportedly reach its end in a negotiated agreement.

So says the New York Times. Before the Times published its report, Om Malik also reported that a settlement might be in the works.

Several people briefed on the situation told the Times that the proposed settlement will be struck between a consortium of investors, who successfully bid for Skype in September, and the original founders of Skype — Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis — who filed a fusillade of lawsuits in an effort to derail the consortium’s $1.9-billion deal to buy 65 percent of Skype from eBay.

The settlement mooted by the Times’ sources would restructure the consortium buying Skype, with Zennstrom and Friis, who created Skype and sold it to eBay in 2005, taking a significant interest in the p2p communication company they founded. (Back in September, I wrote about a potential settlement along these very lines.)

Apparently withdrawing from the deal — doubtless at the strong insistence of Zennstrom and Friis — will be Index Ventures, a London-based venture capital firm whose partner, Mike Volpi, formerly served as CEO and chairman of Joost, a video-sharing firm also founded by Zennstrom and Friis.

This is where the tale gets tangled and sordid, and where it requires some expository backtracking.

A phalanx of intellectual-property disputes and lawsuits relating to software technology licensed to Skype by Joltid — a company controlled, again, by Zennstrom and Friis — was designed to prevent eBay from completing the $1.9-billion sale of a 65-percent interest in Skype to a group of investors that includes Index Ventures, private-equity firm Silver Lake, venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board.

But there’s an additional subtext to this byzantine story. It involves Volpi, a former Cisco executive who was involved in a great many of the networking giant’s acquisitions through the late 90s and into the current decade. In 2007, Volpi left Cisco to take the helm at Joost, a video-sharing business built atop some of the same software technology that provided the p2p architectural foundations for Skype and Zennstrom and Friis’ earlier companies, including file-sharing trailblazer Kazaa.

What transpired at Joost is key to understanding the intense antagonism between the principals involved in the fight for Skype.

At some point, as Joost struggled to gain ground against established video-distribution websites, Volpi turned his attention to Skype. In February of this year, while he was serving as CEO and chairman of Joost, Volpi began email correspondence with Danny Rimer of Index Ventures — the VC firm Volpi would later join — regarding a scheme to take control of Skype in conjunction with private-equity firm SIlver Lake and others. To make matters worse, Volpi wrote the correspondence using his email account at Joost.

In a motion for a preliminary injunction as well as in a preceding lawsuit, Jotid and Joost accused Volpi of a veritable panoply of chicanery and outright malfeasance. Regarding the investment-consortium’s bid to take majority control of Skype, the plaintiffs charged that “the entire transaction is . . . . infected with Volpi’s misconduct.”

With Volpi having used his Joost account for email correspondence regarding Skype, the Joost and Joltid plaintiffs produced Volpi’s email messages and other documentation to support their injunction demands.

Not only did Volpi discuss a Skype takeover with his future colleague at Index Ventures while he was still at Joost, but Volpi also made critical, even disparaging, comments about prospective deal partners (including former Cisco colleague Charlie Giancarlo) and about his employers, Zennstrom and Friis.

Regarding Giancarlo, Volpi wrote:

“Charlie is a good guy, but not a superstar . . . . His core asset at Cisco is (sic) that he was much more inclined to say “yes” to John (Chambers, Cisco’s CEO) than I was.”

In those email messages, Volpi also discussed how Skype could change its underlying software architecture to obviate the intellectual-property claims related to Joltid and its p2p software.

The entire saga may have done irreparable damage to Volpi’s previously stellar professional reputation. In a column published originally on October 31, the San Jose Mercury News’ Chris O’Brien wrote:

Even if we give Volpi the benefit of the doubt and assume he prevails on the legal issues, his actions and behavior are likely to put a considerable dent in his reputation. It may be hard to predict who will be the winner in these legal cases, but it’s clear that Volpi is the early loser.

If the New York Times report proves accurate, the epilogue of this story will be worth following.