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Siemens Communications on Oct. 22 will launch a unified communications appliance geared specifically for the needs of small and midsize businesses.

The aim of the new HiPath OpenOffice ME appliance is to put the improved productivity and lower communication cost benefits that large enterprises can exploit with UC, as well as the integrated communications capabilities, into an easy-to-install, -administer and -use appliance.

“We realized shoehorning large enterprise technology [into an SMB package] wasn’t going to work,” said Al Baker, Siemens’ U.S. vice president of product and service management, in San Jose, Calif.

That has been the approach of other large vendors, believes Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst with the Yankee Group, in Boston.

“Cisco and Avaya have [enterprise] products out there, but what they’ve historically done is come out with the same product for SMBs in a ‘lite’ version with limited functionality. It’s a more cobbled-together solution of existing products targeted to SMBs,” she said.

The new appliance, aimed at between 20 to 150 users, uses VOIP (voice over IP) technology to enable users to access the system features from remote locations as well as locally by using SIP (Session Initiation Protocol)-based IP phones.

“Most SMB solutions today are key system type products that are limited to physical boundaries,” said Baker.

Read more here about Siemens’ VOIP products for SMBs.

Siemens added a long list of features to the appliance, including voice mail, presence, ad-hoc audio conferencing, call recording, Microsoft Outlook integration, one-number service, reverse dialing, personal auto attendant, call log, instant messaging, directory search, personal notification, fax and mobile phone integration.

In the Linux-based appliance, Siemens integrated the presence capability across a range of media, including voice mail, IM, fax, mobility and conferencing. “You can see the state and status of [a user’s] availability across all those media and engage anyone connected to the system in any one of those media,” said Baker.

Siemens sought to make it easy to use by implementing a common user interface, dubbed myPortal, and easy to administer through a unified administrative interface.

The myPortal interface is a big plus, said beta tester Shayne Spackman, IT manager at Santa Barbara Charter in Santa Barbara, Calif. “As we ran this portal, we could see who was online in real time, everybody’s status. [We] could see how to reach people quickly,” he said.

The HiPath OpenOffice ME appliance is also integrated with Microsoft Outlook on two levels and under two licenses. Under the Basic User license, integration with Outlook’s calendar allows presence information to be taken from a user’s calendar and automatically used to change call routing preferences and voice mail greetings. The Advanced User integration embeds the unified communications features of OpenOffice directly into Outlook. “The Advanced User gets a tool bar that goes inside Outlook, so instead of using myPortal, you can just use the myPortal tool bar embedded in Outlook,” explained Baker.

“I really like the Outlook integration,” said Spackman. “In Outlook you could click and get status [and] call people using Outlook. It integrates with the Outlook calendar, so you could tell if someone’s in a meeting. It shows that person is not available, and if that person set it up it would tell you the best way to reach them.”

The appliance, which also has a single, unified reporting engine, is due in February 2008 for a list price of $270 per seat.

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