Polycom heads for the desktop

Polycom Inc. next week is set to take the wraps off a software-only desktop video client that requires no special hardware, and a management appliance to simplify customer call scheduling and distribution of software updates to endpoints.

The new products are scheduled to be unveiled at the Polycom Users’ Group (PUG) meeting in Tampa, Fla., next week. Along with the new products, Polycom also is expected to announce Version 7.0 software releases for its MGC line of multipoint control units (MCU) and WebOffice collaboration suite. The MGC upgrade will feature Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) among other enhancements for multi-party calls.

Polycom’s new US$150 PVX endpoint runs on a PC outfitted with Windows 2000 or later and can be used with a standard Webcam, which coupled with the cost of the software delivers an H.323 endpoint for less than half of what’s available in hardware products today. It supports the newer H.264 video compression standard, Polycom’s Siren14 14-KHz audio compression and the company’s People+Content technology, which lets PC-based information (such as a slide presentation) be viewed with the video window.

PVX is targeted at telecommuters and office workers who don’t want dedicated conferencing hardware on their desks. PVX also can integrate with Cisco Systems Inc.’s CallManager.

Because the PVX is H.323 based, it suffers the same fate as traditional conferencing appliances when it comes to network address translation (NAT) and firewall traversal. H.323 uses non-standard TCP ports, which are blocked in many corporate firewalls and in the NAT implementations supported in traditional routers from vendors such as Linksys and Netgear.

However, PVX does a better job of detecting when NAT is in use and directing users how to work around the issue with their home-office broadband routers, says Ira Weinstein, senior analyst at Wainhouse Research. PVX requires a 2-GHz processor to run with a Webcam. For those with older systems, the software will work with Polycom’s ViaVideo desktop unit, which has its own audio/video processing capabilities.

Alan Phillips, videoconferencing specialist for the Imperial Office of Education, is looking forward to the PVX release because it will allow him to finally implement a central address book for his users in the Imperial County School District in southeastern California. Phillips has between 250 and 300 ViaVideo’s running, but is using older versions of the software because newer updates have a compatibility problem with the county’s Ridgeway firewall tunneling appliance. The version of ViaVideo software currently deployed does not support central address books.

Polycom is not the first to market with a software-only endpoint. VCON is shipping vPoint with similar features, including H.264 support, which offers better-quality video with less bandwidth. For stand-alone use, vPoint costs US$199 and requires a USB authentication key when used outside a VCON Media Xchange Manager installation.

Polycom also is delivering some long-promised additions to its MGC MCU with Version 7.0 of the software that powers it. The new release features SIP integration, Advanced Encryption Standard encryption and support for H.264 multipoint calls. Encryption has become a bigger issue with compliance regulations in the healthcare and financial sectors, and the SIP integration helps expand the number of devices that can be brought into a call.

Polycom sees SIP as the future protocol for all IP conferencing, but says it is not abandoning its H.323 and H.320 (ISDN) roots any time soon.

“The SIP video is a nice change for Polycom,” says Zeus Kerravala, vice president of enterprise infrastructure research and consulting at The Yankee Group. “They were always proponents of SIP on voice, but not on the video side.”

On the management side, Polycom is releasing ReadiManager LX100, a 1-U-high appliance that schedules video calls via a Web interface or integration with Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. ReadiManager also can be used to monitor the health of various conferencing devices in a network and push out software updates to endpoints. It’s a “lite” version of more-complicated software offerings from Polycom that have more features and functionality, but also more complexity. ReadiManager LX will be priced starting at US$10,000.

Finally, Polycom is releasing Version 7.0 of its WebOffice collaboration portal. The update features integration with Microsoft Live Communication Server and MSN Messenger. Users of the three will be able to see who is online and what communications options (voice, video, chat) are available to connect with them through the Messenger interface. Polycom also is embedding a stripped-down version of PVX in the system so users can launch and receive point-to-point calls from the WebOffice interface. Version 7.0 is a free upgrade for existing users with a service contract. Pricing normally starts at US$200 per seat.

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