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Counterpoint

The counterpoint to what? Good question. I wanted to talk about some personal experiences with communications technologies. Since the sentiments in this article may appear to contradict ideas I have shared previously – taking more of an analyst, rather than a consumer point of view – I thought I would present them as a “counterpoint”.

Frequently, nascent technologies promise to improve the way we live and work. But at the early stages, both businesses and individuals tend to experience more challenges than benefits.

I work out of a home office, like many other professionals today. Organizations are becoming increasingly virtual and IT managers are struggling to deliver reliable, secure and cost-effective communications to their growing remote workforce. In fact, many technological advancements – such as enterprise mobility, unified communications and SaaS/cloud-based communications, to name a few – are touted as particularly appropriate for mobile and geographically dispersed users. But remote workers frequently face issues that negatively impact their ability to leverage the full potential of these advanced technologies.

Here follow some quick references to popular marketing pitches and my counterpoints as an end user:

UC and software-based communications provide a cost-effective and convenient communications solution for remote workers.

COUNTERPOINT: At home, I have a regular POTS line, as well as a Cisco IP Communicator client on my laptop. I am glad I have the Cisco client because it allows me to call home when travelling or call an international number from home – free of charge to me. However, the few times I have tried to use it to attend an audio conference or make a critical business call, the quality turned out to be so poor that I had to switch to the POTS line or my cell phone.

There are several “weak links” in this scenario and the soft client is just one. It may be the quality of my Internet connection. I have a DSL line (I believe 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream) and I frequently have quality problems (breaking voice or slow website upload) when using various web applications or soft clients. It may be my wireless router – which is integrated with the DSL modem. It may be my laptop RAM or processing power. It could also be an issue with my VPN, the size of my Lotus Notes mail box, or any other application I access on my laptop. It may be some cookies or software bugs on my home network.

So it could be anything! But my point is, I am not ready to dump my TDM line OR my desktop phone for a PC-based soft client any time soon. Though my experience is that of a home worker, I think business environments are not immune to such challenges. If you really believe PC-based clients are ready to replace desktop phones, maybe you need to make sure the money you save from eliminating desktop phones is properly invested in assessing and upgrading LAN and WAN connections, PC processing power, RAM and hard drivers, etc. In my opinion, soft clients make a great adjunct to desktop phones, but not a viable replacement alternative … yet.

SaaS and cloud-based communications enable convenient self service for SMBs and remote workers.

COUNTERPOINT: I strongly believe in the value of hosted/cloud-based communications for businesses with limited in-house resources. But I have an issue with the claims around self service. I suppose, self service makes sense at the very initial stages of service selection and provisioning. Certainly, IP telephony – hosted or premises-based – also enables self-service moves, adds and changes (MACs), which provides substantial cost savings. IP telephony also enables IT managers as well as end users to manipulate settings through software/Web-based interfaces – providing flexibility and cost efficiencies.

However, self service only goes so far. In fact, hosted IP telephony and other ASP services never gained much traction exactly because service providers were not able to provide sufficient network implementation and management support required for mission-critical, real-time communications.

Inevitably, hosted services involve some customer premises equipment (CPE). To begin with, LAN and WAN reliability and security are top concerns with both hosted and premises-based IP communications. Therefore, router and switch selection, proper configuration and management are critical. Further, telephony endpoints and the respective wiring still require someone to literally crawl under people’s desks. Small business and remote workers should not be left entirely on their own when implementing or managing hosted IP communications.

Most of the time, a remote worker, similar to a residential user, uses… well, “cloud” or hosted communications. The Internet service, the POTS line – it is all managed by a service provider. And remote workers frequently face some common challenges. For example, my intermittent Internet connection has been an issue for a while. Having to spend hours on the phone with a customer service rep and stick pins into the router to restart and reconfigure it could be immensely frustrating. My phone company, on the other hand, has so far left me without a phone service only once (for about 24 hours). But even that one time, the warning that if they come to my house and it turns out to be a problem with my internal wiring or phones, they’ll charge me whatever it is they charge, etc., etc. … well, it leaves a bitter after-taste.

So, my point is, small business, remote workers, even medium and large businesses – they all want to feel taken care of. They’ll expect someone to come in and install or fix things for them as part of the monthly service charges and will not be too thrilled about self service.

I hope my thoughts make sense. Let me know what you think.

Google to Drive Business Migration into the Cloud

Google has become a powerful force in the lives of many people. It certainly is my window to the World today as I land on the Google search page as soon as I open my eyes in the morning and before I go to bed at night.  It has become a symbol and an icon, our “virtual home”, almost synonymous with the Internet, Internet browsing, and … the Cloud! With its presence already established in the consumer world, Google is also making an aggressive foray into the business market with a set of cloud applications.

source: Frost & Sullivan

Since I promised to post several articles on the raging battle between premises-based and hosted/cloud communications, I will dedicate this one to Google. So much has been written about it, that it seems there is nothing left to say. However, two of my colleagues – Subha Rama and Alaa Saayed – put together two very different pieces on Google that provide some unique value. Subha chose to look deeply into Google’s corporate culture and identified several major factors that have driven and will likely continue to drive Google’s success going forward. Alaa, on the other hand, managed to get a hold of Rajen Sheth, Senior Product Manager for Google Apps, and received some first-hand insight into Google’s vision for the enterprise market.

My key takeaway from the two articles is that Google’s success is largely due to the fact that it’s built on the tenets of the Internet and the Internet age. Its product portfolio benefits from the advantages of the web and the cloud; its culture and internal organization also derive their efficiency from applying the innovative spirit and democratic principles of the new age in IT and communications technologies.

Here I provide excerpts from both articles, as well as links to the complete versions on our website.

Subha Rama’s piece is titled: “Google: the IT Iconoclast ”, and it can be found here. According to Subha, Google’s success story is based on two simple tenets: “question established ways and have a healthy disregard for the impossible”. She writes: “As Google grandly outlined in its first SEC filing, its mission was “to organize the world’s information …. and make it universally accessible and useful”. Google believed that the most effective, and ultimately the most profitable, way to accomplish this mission was to put the needs of their users first. This has become more or less the governing principle behind almost all its product innovations.”

Then Subha goes on to ask “What makes Google, well… Google?” She believes that, at Google, “crazy definitely triumphs comfy”. She points to the fact that Google strives to hire only the best talent out there, people who are academically exceptional and are capable of thinking out of the box. You can find neurosurgeons and rocket scientists, in addition to nerdy computer engineers, among Google’s employees. Also, it continues to adhere to its Stanford culture, allowing employees to dedicate 20 percent of their time to work on their pet ideas. This is how products such as Google News, Orkut and Google Images came into being. Subha recognizes that Google employees are constantly challenged to think in new directions and come out with defining ideas. She further notes, however, that Google also focuses on productivity and enforcing deadlines so that it is not drowned in chaos, which can be so typical of highly creative environments.

Further, Subha discusses “the long-tail model”, which forms the foundation of Google’s strategy: “Google strongly believes in the long-tail model, that as the costs of online production and distribution fall, niche products and services can become as economic as mainstream ones. This theory forms the core of a cloud-based service delivery model, which while accommodating a wide variety of applications is not subject to the lowest-common-denominator principle that we apply in a physical environment.” According to Subha, this business model focuses on a large number of products, each targeted at a relatively small audience, thus addressing niche segments, and building customer communities in the process. Further she concludes that the Google business model is in fact based on openness, interoperability, decentralization and accessibility, the pivots around which cloud-based services are built.

Alaa Saayed tackled similar issues of corporate culture and success factors in his recent interview with Rajen Sheth, Senior Product Manager, Google Apps, posted unabridged here. In this interview, Rajen Sheth identified some of Google’s strategic directions as well as some of the key factors impacting Google’s success.

When Alaa asked Sheth if they were finding it difficult to migrate customers to Google Apps, Rajen admitted that it used to be very difficult, but things are rapidly changing. He stated: “Almost every CIO that I talk to is planning a cloud strategy and the value proposition of the cloud is very widely known at this point. For most corporations, now, it seems, it’s a matter of WHEN rather than IF they are going to move to the cloud for a lot of their core services…We are a serious player in most of the conversations we are having about messaging out there.”

Then Alaa asked Rajen about innovation at Google: “Google is well-known for its unwavering commitment to innovation…How is the process of innovation managed at Google”?

Sheth responded as follows: “Having worked in different companies, I could say that Google really operates in a very different way than a lot of organizations out there. It really operates in a way that spurs this innovation. I think there are a few elements to it. The first thing is that we are not afraid to look beyond what an existing space is all about right now, and so if you think about it, in many of the cases where Google has been successful, we’ve reinvented existing spaces … We take an existing space, not thinking about it in terms of how it is today, but what it should be, and how do we make it a brand-new experience”.

“Another big element to it is the notion of cloud computing, and that is actually one of the things that spur innovation. In many cases where you have to build packaged software, you are forced into a stream where you are releasing major updates every two, three or four years. The problem with that is that you have to think three, four-plus years in advance what is going to be the innovation that you want to push, whereas in reality, innovation happens all the time. With the cloud computing paradigm, we have it such that all our applications are centralized and we can update them incrementally, and that actually increases our innovation rate quite dramatically.

Finally, the Google culture definitely spurs innovation. The structure is very, very flat and people are encouraged to think, and to take risks, and think in brand-new areas. In fact, we have this philosophy that we call 70-20-10 and basically what it means, we put 70 percent of our effort in the core of our business, but we put 20 percent of our effort in new areas that are beyond the core business that we think might be fruitful. So we think beyond what is making money right now. Then we put 10 percent of our effort in completely off-the-wall things that may or may not see the light of day, may or may not be a great technology. There are definitely some great examples of technologies that have started out in that bucket and that have become some major areas for Google”.

I believe the discussion above clearly highlights the factors that will make cloud computing and cloud communications successful and will drive continued growth for Google itself. I will still caution, though, that the cloud is not for everyone – both on the supply and the demand side, but that is the topic of another post.

Asterisk + Skype + SMB = Freetalk Connect

Freetalk Connect

Jazinga and Freetalk have combined efforts and the result is a Skype enabled SMB phone system called Freetalk Connect.

The press release:

FREETALK Partners With Jazinga To Create FREETALK® Connect
Companies Collaborate On Skype-enabled Small Business Communication System
Featuring Set Up In Less Than 15 Minutes

MIAMI, January 20, 2010 — As the result of a new partnership announced today at ITEXPO East 2010, FREETALK and Jazinga have created the FREETALK® Connect, a full-featured unified communications system that is the first to feature Skype for SIP and Skype for Asterisk functionality.

FREETALK and Jazinga collaborated in designing the FREETALK Connect, featuring a do-it-yourself (DIY) technology approach that can be configured in less than 15 minutes, enabling users who are not tech savvy to use it without formal training. This new class of DIY communications system allows anyone with basic knowledge of computers to install and maintain the office phone system.  SIP, Skype and traditional PSTN phones can be plugged into the network, and the FREETALK Connect auto-detects and configures them. An onscreen wizard guides the user through setup. Adding users and administering the system after install is equally simple.

Further distinguishing the FREETALK Connect is its intelligent routing capabilities. Incoming Skype calls, as well as SIP, PSTN and IAX2 calls, can be routed to any local or remote Skype user, SIP, analog or mobile phone. Additionally, the FREETALK Connect enables users to set up “Find Me, Follow Me” features, and provides a unified mail box that consolidates messages from voice mail and email into one mailbox.

Some of the key features from the Jazinga platform found in the FREETALK Connect include:

Callback / Dial-around
Access to Skype Buddy lists
Auto Attendant / IVR
Paging
Call Parking
Remote Extensions
Music on Hold
Conferencing

The FREETALK Connect also has an easily configured and updated:

Managing routes to users, telephone services, and applications
Providing SIP/Skype telephone service management
Router management (networking, port forwarding, DNS, DHCP)

“Jazinga’s products consistently ensure call integrity by integrating quality of service and prioritizing voice traffic on the network into an affordable, simple product,” said In Store Solutions COO Craig Smith. “There was no question that FREETALK wanted to partner with Jazinga to develop the FREETALK Connect, because it continues our goal of working with the best providers to distribute outstanding products around the world.”
“FREETALK Connect is designed for small businesses with between 2 and 49 users, an undersold market that desperately needs UC functionality,” said Randy Busch, CEO of Jazinga Inc. “As a result of our partnership with In Store Solutions, the telecom technology playing field is much more level between larger enterprises and their smaller competitors.”

The the FREETALK Connect is marketed through Skype Shop, which is operated by In Store Solutions. The unit initially will be available to registered U.S. Skype users beginning in March.

For more information about FREETALK Connect PBX or to order a unit, visit

http://freetalkconnect.com.

About FREETALK

FREETALK is a product innovation catalyst – identifying market gaps and working with its global partners to design, manufacture and quickly bring to market products that disrupt traditional categories.  Leveraging untapped market opportunities, FREETALK products are designed to be environmentally friendly, sold online and delivered globally at aggressive price-points. Always at the forefront of innovation, FREETALK is known for creating synergistic products that add unique value to its partners’ branded points-of-sale.

About Jazinga

Jazinga Inc. develops communications products for small businesses and homes. The Jazinga system provides enterprise telephony and data functionality for this market, but at a fraction of the cost and without the setup complexity of an enterprise-class IP PBX. Jazinga Inc. is privately held and headquartered in Toronto, Canada. Additional information is available at http://www.jazinga.com.

Contact:
Sue Huss, for In Store Solutions
sue.huss@comunicano.com
+1 619-379-4396

Jazinga came to market a while back with a Asterisk appliance that is not much different than other you would find in the Asterisk market today. Skype recently announced their Skype SIP Trunking capability which is helping Skype become more open standards compliant, paving the way for deals like this one.

Since I have not tested the system myself I can only speculate that it is not huge departure from other Asterisk systems, which are not trivial to set up. Let’s hope they did their homework and come to market (March) with something that is much less technical and more end-user friendly, like Response Point.. was.

One thing that I find interesting is that it will be sold via the Skype store to US registered Skype users. If you were wondering what the connection is between Freetalk and Skype; the creators of Freetalk are also the curators of the Skype store. Ya, you heard me right. The company that created Freetalk (In Store Solutions) operates the Skype store. Which makes one wonder if there is overlapping ownership between Skype and In Store Solutions.

Something else that I find interesting, and not just because I am one of the founders of  Xten/Counterpath, is how this announcement relates the recent announcement of the Asterisk/Digium softphone from Counterpath. Which may be why In Store Solutions decided not to leverage the Digium or Asterisk brand in this release, maybe they see the new Asterisk Bria softphone as a competitor in this instance?

I expect this will not be the last Asterisk-based phone system to incorporate Skype functionality this year, but it would seem as though they are the first, congrats to fellow Canadians at Jazinga.

Looking for PHP (or RoR) rock star for dev lead on exciting new (funded) VoIP-centric web app

Looking for a contract PHP (or RoR) rock star for dev lead on exciting new (funded) VoIP-centric web app. I expect it will be no more than 6 weeks work. Email erik@sipthat.com for info.

iPhone Video to launch at WWDC?

Update: Yes, it was indeed launched and it’s called the iPhone 3G S but no video calling as yet.

There are rumors abound regarding the next release of the iPhone, every tech blog known to man is all over this like a fat kid on a smarty.

The iPhone 3.0 SDK has pretty much been proven to support video so a iPhone Video product seems to make sense. What kind of video? Recording full frame video is one thing but transporting that over 3G is quite another. My guess is it will not support real-time streaming or video calling on 3G, the question is will it deliver the goods on WiFi.

It will be interesting to see what happens at WWDC (running from the 8th to the 12th), the new iPhone is sure to launch at this event.

The CxO Perspective On Unified Communications in a Down Economy

With the recession having forced business decision makers to change their investment priorities, communication vendors and service providers are re-assessing their challenges and opportunities for growth. One of the top questions on communication vendors and service providers’ minds is how perceptions of unified communications (UC) have changed and how the down economy is impacting demand for the individual communication applications as well as demand for UC as an integrated set of voice, data and video applications with pervasive presence across all communication media.

UC Awareness and Usage on the Rise

We conducted an end-user survey of over 100 C-level executives at U.S.-based multi-national corporations (MNCs) that sought to accomplish the following objectives:

  •  Measure awareness of communication and collaboration tools
  • Identify leading communication and collaboration vendors and service providers
  • Identify frequency and level of communication and collaboration tool usage
  • Determine importance of communication and collaboration tools
  •  Understand the effect of the recession on communication and collaboration tools
  • Determine future intentions for deploying communication and collaboration tools within organizations

We sought to understand the degree of awareness, usage and importance of the following applications:

  •  VoIP
  • Audio conferencing
  • Web conferencing
  • Video conferencing
  • Telepresence
  • Instant messaging
  • Presence
  • Unified messaging
  • Unified communications

One of the most positive findings was the fact that over 30% of respondents were aware of all these applications. Most respondents (80%) were aware of VoIP and the three main types of conferencing applications, whereas about 31% were aware of UC (the lowest awareness level of all applications). Interestingly enough, over 30% of respondents also claimed to be using UC within their organizations, which may indicate that, due to varying UC definitions, users identify UC with IP telephony and/or other advanced communication applications. Another reassuring survey finding was the fact that at least 30% of the respondents found all the communication applications listed above to be “very important” and at least 73% found each one of these applications to be either “very important” or “somewhat important”.

The really bright spot was the finding that 74% of the respondents expect their budget for communication and collaboration products and services to increase or stay the same with only 26% anticipating a budget reduction over the next 12 months. Some of the stated reasons for increasing spending included expansion and growth at the respondents’ organizations and industries as well as technology advances and replacement of outdated systems and use of new applications. Respondents who stated that they planned to continue or increase their usage of UC explained their decisions listing a number of actual and anticipated benefits including: cost savings, productivity and the ability to better communicate both internally and externally.

Finally, one other interesting phenomenon revealed by the survey was the respondents’ strong intentions to increase their usage of managed and hosted services. Only 18% planned to decrease their usage, whereas the rest intended to either “somewhat increase” or “significantly increase” their usage of such services.

 

Finding the Business Value in Web 3.0

My colleagues Alaa Saayed and Melanie Turek recently took a look at Web 3.0 and tried to define it and assess its potential impact on both business users and communication solution providers. Here follow some excerpts from their study.

What exactly is Web 3.0? This buzzword has lately been used to describe the evolution of the Web in the context of human interaction. The so called “semantic Web” refers to the third-generation Internet’s potential to automatically and intelligently interpret the data accessed by a given user, thereby making the continuous flow of information increasingly relevant.

Through the use of semantic technologies, which intelligently process the nature and value of searchable text, Web 3.0 tools find and deliver the right content at the right time. To do this, they use special formats and notations, such as Resource Description Framework Schema (RDFS) and Web Ontology Language (OWL), to provide algorithms that understand the description of concepts, terms and relationships. As a result, a Web 3.0 search engine wouldn’t rely only on keywords to deliver information, for instance, but would also take into account the context of complete phrases or questions in order to produce more relevant results.

 For example, suppose you want to know the names of all the actors who have played James Bond in the 007 movies. If you type in the question “who portrayed James Bond?” into a traditional search engine, the tool will deliver a list of pages that may or may not contain the names of all or some of the actors who have played James Bond on screen; you must then click on those links to get the information you’re looking for. If you use an advanced semantic Web browser, on the other hand, the search engine will “understand” exactly what you’re looking for and deliver direct answers—in this case, a list of the actors, rather than a list of links.

Although there are many ways in which the semantic Web could help technology vendors and IT managers transform the way they do business, the key advantage it delivers is knowledge management.

We are immersed in the information age; companies and end users that best manage the onslaught of information–and contextualize it for efficient use–will realize a competitive advantage. The goal is to transform data from a variety of sources (consumers, employees, and enterprises) into personal and institutional knowledge.

Companies must leverage explicit and stored knowledge to deliver maximum value; to do that, they must manage that knowledge in ways that improve efficiency and streamline business processes. As a result:

 

1.  Marketing departments could better understand what customers are saying about their products.

2.  Communication departments could intelligently tailor their tight Internet/Web 2.0 communications budgets.

3.  Business intelligence units could better evaluate and analyze the competition.

4.  Customer service departments could better serve their clients.

5.  Doctors could better serve their patients by having enriched clinical knowledge.

6.  Travel agencies could better tailor their product packages and offerings depending on customers’ preferences.

7.  Financial institutions and banks could better serve people’s needs by tailoring their products appropriately.

8.  Enterprises could gather employee’s explicit knowledge (published, concise, and structured) as well as tacit knowledge (which resides in peoples’ heads).

9.  Service oriented architectures (SOA) and search services on the cloud could be drastically improved.

 

The goal of the semantic Web is to intelligently use information, instead of simply accumulating it.

Web 3.0

Web 3.0

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