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Polycom bolsters video net wares

Feb 24, 20035 mins

After years of product acquisition and integration work, Polycom’s goal of helping customers use video, audio and data conferencing on any network from just about any endpoint could finally be coming to fruition.

PLEASANTON, CALIF. – After years of product acquisition and integration work, Polycom‘s goal of helping customers use video, audio and data conferencing on any network from just about any endpoint could finally be coming to fruition.

The company this week will roll out a variety of enhancements, from new appliance software to new videoconferencing endpoints, intended to ease customer management of conferencing resources, improve IP connections with lower bandwidth requirements, and simplify mixing of voice and video on a single call.

In 2001, Polycom acquired rival PictureTel and network equipment maker Accord Networks in an effort to provide a more rounded offering of voice, video and data collaboration products, although it’s taken the better part of two years to get all the groups on the same page. The moves also helped set Polycom apart from competitors such as Tandberg and VCON, which offered only pieces of the puzzle, not the entire picture, experts say.

For network executives, the key features of the announcement are in the enhanced software for Polycom’s multipoint control units (MCU), which connect multiple sites and round them into a single call. Version 5.0 of the software for the company’s current MGC-100 and MGC-50 MCUs, as well as a new MGC-25 for small offices, now support the soon-to-be-ratified H.264 video standard. H.264 delivers the same video quality at 384K bit/sec that previous codecs delivered at 768K bit/sec, says Mark Roberts, products sales director at Polycom. With this support users get the same TV-quality video at half the bandwidth cost.

Also, 5.0 lets the MGC line handle audio and video callers in the same physical conference, rather than stringing together an audio-only call with a video call, as is required today. The number of endpoints that can be connected to a physical call, without having to cascade into a second physical call, also has been increased.

“I can now do 32 sites in one video call without cascading to another call,” says Guy Welty, manager of global media networks and collaborative services at specialty chemicals and material company W.R. Grace in Columbia, Md., which has been testing Version 5 for a few weeks. Previously, if 12 sites were in a conference they would have to be cascaded in two separate calls. “This makes it easy on us, because we don’t have to worry about multiple links, and it’s easier to manage and set up. Anything you can do to tighten up mistakes is good for you,” Welty says about the upgraded product.

Welty says he also likes the ability for each user to choose a view of a multi-point conference best-suited for his needs, rather than one view being thrust upon all users. Up to 16 people can be displayed onscreen side by side with an active border around the person speaking.

Polycom also rolled out Conferencing Suite 5.0, which features improved call management and scheduling features, including the ability to schedule a call via Microsoft Outlook. Users also can reserve a set amount of bandwidth to be used with each call. The suite also can be used to help manage non-Polycom endpoints.

Other enhancements and announcements this week from Polycom:

  • A new Executive Collection of high-end video units with single or dual 50- or 61-inch plasma displays built into a credenza or assembled as a stand-alone unit.

  • A new iPower 9000 series of PC-based group video endpoints, which will replace the 900 line, that include the ability to record conferences, share computer-based data at native screen resolution and new IP tunneling capabilities for use with third-party VPNs.

  • Enhancements to the ViewStation and VS4000 group video appliances, including support for the new high-resolution PowerCam video camera, better management features that allow the lockdown of certain functions and interfaces, and unique default passwords for each unit shipped.

  • On the desktop, the ViaVideo endpoint now supports up to 512K bit/sec and 30-frame-per-second video.

By offering endpoints, management and network components, Polycom is helping insulate itself from competitors Tandberg, VCON and Sony, and the growing market of Web conferencing vendors, says Joe Gagan, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group.

Gagan says that because Web conferencing can be easier to use and requires less specialized equipment, and that not everyone wants to see the person with whom they’re speaking, could affect the overall growth of videoconferencing.

Most of the new features and products will roll out later this quarter or in the second quarter. Many of the endpoint upgrades will be available for free via Polycom’s Web site. The MGC-25 starts at $22,000, depending on configuration. Conference Suite 5.0 will start at $25,000 for 25 devices.


Conferencing everywhere

Polycom slowly is combining the fruits of its PictureTel and Accord acquisitions into a set of products that combine the best of audio, video and data collaboration.

Can offer complete package from audio and video endpoints

to network equipment with software to manage it all.

Can offer variety of endpoint types, including set-top appliances

PC-based systems and room-based executive systems.

Supports proposed H.264 video standard, which helps cut in

half the amount of bandwidth needed for a quality video call.
While H.264 is good, it’s not ratified as a standard yet, so there could be minor tweaks still to come.

Stiffer competition from video endpoint maker Tandberg and

Web conferencing services such as WebEx.
As 3G wireless proliferates, the company will need to mix video capabilities of newer phones with traditional videoconferencing.