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Open and secure alternative to Skype

Imagine a new secure P2P (Skype like) offer that also supported SIP in the client. You could use the client software on it’s own (just like Skype) or attach it to just about any VoIP service or phone system for free.

Does it make sense for consumers?
Does it make sense for business users?
Is there room in the market?
Would you use it?

Martyn Davies chimes in…

I would use it, but as a telecom industry insider, I know that I’m not the average business user or consumer. As to whether there is room in the market, I think that depends a lot on what Microsoft do with Skype now that they own it. From a business point-of-view, their efforts are focused around OCS/Lync (and software licenses), so Skype there is not adding to their central proposition. Skype has a lot of users, but produces very little revenue, since the majority just use the free services. As a Skype competitor you would have the same problems getting to the cash.

Skype was really the first company to take VoIP and make it completely trivial to install and use. To do that, they had to take some liberties and deviate from standards (like SIP), so that they could add the magic that made it work from behind firewalls, add security and self-configuration, and integrate video so seamlessly. Like Facebook, once it is clearly the biggest of its kind of services, it becomes the community that everyone must join. I can’t see that another Skype-alike has a way in, unless Microsoft significantly change the rules now.

What do you think?

So it begins. Skype for Asterisk falls.

It looks like the first victim in the Microsoft acquisition of Skype is Digium and the open source PBX – Asterisk. The following is an email sent to existing Skype for Asterisk users…

Skype for Asterisk will not be available for sale or activation after July 26, 2011.

Skype for Asterisk was developed by Digium in cooperation with Skype. It includes proprietary software from Skype that allows Asterisk to join the Skype network as a native client. Skype has decided not to renew the agreement that permits us to package this proprietary software. Therefore Skype for Asterisk sales and activations will cease on July 26, 2011.

This change should not affect any existing users of Skype for Asterisk. Representatives of Skype have assured us that they will continue to support and maintain the Skype for Asterisk software for a period of two years thereafter, as specified in the agreement with Digium. We expect that users of Skype for Asterisk will be able to continue using their Asterisk systems on the Skype network until at least July 26, 2013. Skype may extend this at their discretion.

Skype for Asterisk remains for sale and activation until July 26, 2011. Please complete any purchases and activations before that date.

Thank you for your business.

Digium Product Management

One has to wonder what will become of Skype Connect, Skype’s answer to SIP Trunking. Will Microsoft shut off the Skype Connect vendors (Cisco, Avaya, Grandstream, etc.) as well?

Original forum post here.

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.

VoIP Network Monitor 'SIPQOS' Launches Beta


Many of us have struggled with VoIP Network Monitoring, keeping tabs on our network without having to manually review the health is always a hassle and concern. For every network my team erected we needed to erect a proper monitor. For smaller networks and even VoIP phone systems the traditional Network Monitors were far to expensive to implement and required port mirroring which meant servers had to be deployed in the VoIP network that required monitoring.

So, we created SIPQOS… SIPQOS is a service that allows VoIP network administrators to attach virtual SIP endpoints to their network which send calls to-and-fro and monitors those calls for interruption. It’s a simplistic approach to a complex problem, if the network drops a registration or if a call fails it’s likely (from personal experience at least) that the issue applies to the entire network and other endpoints are experiencing the same problem. SIPQOS won’t take the place of more expensive in-network solutions but it does a great job of providing redundant VoIP network monitoring and SIP-based VoIP phone system monitoring as well.

An excerpt from the announcement we made on the 10th…

VANCOUVER, February. 10SIPQOS (pronounced SIP-KWOSS), a new entrant in the VoIP network monitoring market has launched a beta of its remote VoIP network monitoring service today. SIPQOS released the first product to bring the power of remote VoIP network monitoring by combining embedded SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) User Agents, web services and some secret sauce. SIPQOS monitors VoIP networks remotely and alerts network administrators when a problem has been detected.

SIPQOS is doing a great job for us and provides redundant VoIP network monitoring on a production network we run today. It also fills a void where others solutions fell flat, SMS alerts are critical and SIPQOS delivers in spades on that front. Those interested should give it a whirl, it’s free to sign up and the plans after the 30 day trial are cheap by anyone’s standards.

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.

Response Point Deserves Better

Disconcerting News

It’s only a few months after Microsoft finally put its Response Point (RP) System in the spotlight with the release of SP2 and John Frederiksen’s keynote speech at ITEXPO East in February 2009, and the wings of the entrepreneurial RP team seem to have been cut. It is clear that the latest wave of Microsoft lay-offs has impacted the RP team and some cryptic statements on the official Response Point Team Blog indicate that Microsoft wishes “to take a good look at the next version of Response Point and ensure it addresses the needs of Small Businesses.”

I contacted John Frederiksen, General Manager for Response Point at Microsoft, and he responded to my concerns with the following somewhat re-assuring comments:

  • The company will continue to support Response Point version 1.0.
  • We will continue to support our current OEMs, Service Providers and resellers that are selling Response Point version 1.0. Customers will continue to be supported through their OEMs.
  • We will also continue to promote the product online and spotlight compatible 3rd party services and add-on products.
  • The team is evaluating the strategy for the next version of the product and will continue to investigate the opportunity in the small business market.
  • The Response Point team has not been moved to another division.

Two years ago, when RP was still in beta trials, I thought it offered some interesting features and capabilities and I believed Microsoft was going to leverage this innovative solution to aggressively pursue the SMB customer segment as another entry point (vis-à-vis OCS) into the telephony market in general (see my article here). I did wonder if there was going to be some conflict of interest between OCS and RP and the respective teams, but ruled out that possibility assuming Microsoft had sufficient resources to support both lines of business as they seem to serve fairly distinct market segments. Today, the economic recession seems to be forcing Microsoft, not unlike other IT and communication vendors, to make tough choices. I am still unsure if the decision was made on the basis of comparing the respective potentials of OCS and RP, but RP has definitely fallen prey to Microsoft’s efforts to cut down expenses where short-term revenue and profit prospects are less certain.

Response Point Value and Market Positioning

In a more recent article discussing the release of SP2, I stated my belief that Response Point is uniquely positioned because of it features including the speech recognition capability and the Magic Blue Button (voice-controlled auto attendant and dialing), but mostly because of its ease of installation, use and management. It is as close as it gets to an affordable,  plug-and-play telephony solution for small businesses, and thus in a category of its own, since most other small-business systems are neither as simple to use nor as inexpensive. Generally, it is hard to find an IP telephony platform that can provide a cost-effective communication solution for a business of less than 20 users, or a larger business with geographically dispersed sites of that size. SP2 offered some valuable enhancements such as analog phone support, intercom, VPN and multi-subnet support, an after-hours receptionist setting and more robust audio. The anticipated release of version 2.0 is supposed to make it an even more robust business-class solution that competes head-to-head with platforms offered by traditional telephony vendors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens.

However, what I believed was going to be Microsoft’s (not so) secret weapon in the battle for the small-business space was its extensive channel of VARs, resellers, specialists, etc. The traditional vendors use channels that have mastered the skill of marketing, implementing and managing more complex solution for medium and large businesses. Very much like the vendors themselves, these channel partners have a vested interest in pursuing larger implementations that produce greater margins and help them scale and grow more rapidly. Response Point, on the other hand, is well positioned to enable multiple Microsoft specialists and consultants to add a new revenue stream to their business and offer a more complete portfolio of business solutions to their small business customers. Response Point customers have indicated that they appreciate the features and lower cost of the solution, but their trust in Microsoft’s continued support and extensive channels represents a major factor in their decision to select Response Point versus open-source or some other less mainstream solutions. Yet Microsoft is currently failing to re-assure its channel by sharing a clear vision for the future of the Response Point system.

I talked to several RP resellers about three months ago and I was really impressed by the positive feedback. They seemed to believe that the features, though not on par with those offered by traditional vendors, were sufficient for most of their clients. A phrase that frequently came up in partners’ comments was: “This time they got it right from the start. It just works.” Also, partners appreciated the continued interaction with Microsoft allowing them to contribute to the development and addition of new capabilities that would further enhance the value of the RP system for small businesses. They were eagerly awaiting release 2.0 as the more compelling solution that would indeed enable them to compete successfully in their target market. My conversations with resellers as well as the blog entries I have read on various web sites dedicated to Response Point and Microsoft’s eco-system of partners indicate a very strong confidence in Microsoft’s ability to deliver and its commitment to this product line.

The Channel Awaits Microsoft’s Official Statement

As the rumors spread about the fate of the RP team and Microsoft delays making an official statement on the future of this products, disappointment and doubt are beginning to creep in among the partner ranks. For some of these small outfits RP had just opened up opportunities that now seem to be closing without proper notice. Not only the income, but also the reputation of these specialists and consultants is on the line since they have promised their customers a certain roadmap of product viability and evolution.

Further, partners are now having second thoughts about the quality of the Response Point system. They see more clearly some of its disadvantages in light of Microsoft’s hesitation to continue investing in further product development. Most of them continue to believe that, given continued development, this product is right for them and for their customers. Yet others are quickly beginning to look for competitive products to add to their portfolio in order to be able to sustain their competitive position in the small business communication space.

Finally, partners are now questioning the nature of their relationship with Microsoft – is Microsoft really committed to supporting its partner network or are they after quick and guaranteed profits only?

Speculations Abound at Times of Uncertainty

I saw speculations about the possibility of Microsoft integrating RP with OCS. I don’t see why they would want to do that. Microsoft can use certain elements of RP for call control with OCS if needed, but OCS is not a suitable solution for small businesses. If a business needs inexpensive telephony and/or IM client, they have other options. The value of OCS and unified communications is in their ability to integrate multiple applications from IM to voice to UM to conferencing, but in order to deploy all these capabilities, a business will need several servers with a significant price tag.

Others are speculating that Microsoft is planning to focus most of its efforts in the communication space on cloud computing and communications as a service (CaaS). I believe that Software as a Service (SaaS) and CaaS have some potential for delivering business applications and communications to SMBs. Similar to existing hosted telephony services, it alleviates all implementation and management hassles for small businesses typically lacking in-house technical expertise. However, SOHOs and very small businesses are likely to continue to prefer the least expensive consumer solutions. On the other hand, small businesses at the upper end of the range – 20 to 100 users – may actually benefit from inexpensive premise-based solutions such as Response Point.

In my opinion, Microsoft should certainly pursue profitable opportunities as that would eventually be best for both itself and its partners. I do believe, however, that Response Point has a good market potential. As I mentioned earlier, it is competing against traditional vendor platforms, many of which are just too expensive and difficult to manage for small businesses of up to 50 users. Hosted IP telephony has failed to gain much traction throughout its nearly decade-long existence, although it is touted to be a most suitable alternative for this particular market segment. Open-source telephony, on the other hand, is becoming a more viable option, especially with Digium and others focusing on developing a channel, something that was considered one of their major weaknesses so far. Consumer vendors such as Google and Skype are also vying for a piece of the SOHO and small business market and are likely to eventually gain some penetration. However, Response Point has the advantage of having been developed as a business system from the start and the channel has already been trained.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that Response Point is a viable solution for the small business market. As with any technology, however, its success is largely dependent on the vendor’s execution plan, and I’ll repeat myself – “It’s all about channels”. Given the right marketing efforts, it will sell, and given the right vendor and channel support – it will thrive; without those elements, it is not going to make it on its own. The small business market continues to be under-penetrated and to offer tremendous opportunities. While the competition seems to be intensifying in this market segment, the various solutions seem to offer some distinct advantages and disadvantages thus basically catering to slightly different sub-segments. As some of Microsoft’s partners seem to believe, more extensive  marketing efforts may be needed (TV commercials, end-user webinars, etc.) with a strong marketing message that clearly identifies the benefits of Response Point in order for Microsoft and its partners to be able to keep Response Point sales afloat in this challenging economy.

SIP Trunking and Hosted PBX in Canada will speed HD Voice for small business

SIP trunks are simply another way of saying VoIP Provider for your phone system. A SIP trunk is a connection from a PBX (phone system) using SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) to an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider).

It might sound complicated but it’s really quite simple, SIP trunks take the place of your legacy telephone company. Most phone systems out there today are more than a couple of years old and are likely based on circuit switched technology. Newer IP-PBXs use packet switching technology, which means they leverage the Internet to deliver the same features you have now, and then some. The difference could be minor or major depending on what your PBX is capable of and what your ITSP can deliver in terms of features and functionality.

Since the PSTN (public switch telephone network) is tied to aging circuit switched technology it has limitations in terms of what media it can support. Essentially, it can deliver low quality voice, that’s it.

SIP Trunks replace older PRI and POTS interfaces that we are used to and bring to the table a wide variety of communications options. Depending on your IP-PBX and your ITSP you could potentially look forward to HD (High Defenition) Voice and potentially HD Video.

HD voice (and video) for small business in Canada will happen, it’s only a matter of time. As broadband providers increase upstream bandwidth and dual WAN link-failover devices become common place, SIP trunking will accellerate in growth and on-net (calls made on the ITSP network) HD Voice will become common place.

Unfortunately, HD communication off-net (eg. PSTN) is not going anywhere at any great speed. Jeff Pulver is back as he reboots the communications industry with his new HD Communication Summit. I welcome Jeff back with open arms, if anyone can convince operators to increase speed towards wide-band/HD adoption it would Jeff Pulver.

Today we can see SIP trunking providers and hosted pbx providers supporting wideband codecs and devices on their networks. This will allow user to communicate in high definition with other users that have devices that support it, in brief you could have better calls between you and your colleagues in the office and remote office workers connected to the same PBX, and that is a step in the right direction.

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