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Mind Share

March 1999

Marc Robins The "X Factor" Files


No, this is not another commentary on the weird and wonderful X-Files/David Duchovny phenomenon of the paranormal. What I'm referring to here is what George Plimpton tried to define in his 1995 book "The X Factor: A Quest for Excellence" - that quality in people (and by my extension, products and services) that marks them as winners and instills them with the stuff of success. In Hollywood, actors are said to possess the X factor - the "Right Stuff" if you will - when they seem to effortlessly attain prototypical qualities of character - when they seem to just get it right.

Now, indulge me here, but I think the whole concept of the X factor can be applied to products and services (Hollywood certainly doesn't have a lock on it). Maybe it's a product that idealizes a killer app, or one that breaks through the clutter of mediocrity and "me-too-ness" to set a new standard or establish an entirely new category. Maybe it's a product that through the force of its "personality" - the quality of its feature set - captures the imagination of an entire population of developers and users and in the process creates an entirely new industry. Think Volkswagen's Beetle; Apple's Macintosh and iMac; Netscape's Navigator; 3Com's Palm Pilot; Dialogic and Natural Microsystems' voice boards; VocalTec's Internet Phone; NBX's NBX 100; Lucent's PacketStar; AltiGen's AltiServ; Qwest and Level 3's IP networks…I could go on and on - and I know I'm leaving out a gazillion other examples - but I think you get the idea.

To be sure, the number of communications-related X factor products and services is on the rise - almost appearing in a logarithmic fashion. Like some nutrient-rich, new-age technology spawning ground, the "primordial IP soup" of convergence and the Internet is giving birth to a profusion of breakthrough products and services - stuff that is radically altering and enhancing the ways we communicate with each other as well as creating entirely new communications "channels."

One of the great joys of my job is being among the first to witness the birth of such X factor innovations (anyone who says technology isn't sexy doesn't have a clue!) Another joy is the ability to share my enthusiasm about such products and services in the pages of our magazine. This month's column will thus take a look at a couple of notable products and services that have caught my eye - innovations that I think have legs and just might catch on in a very big way.

Upgrading an existing voice mail system to support unified messaging (when the option is available) can be an expensive proposition, especially for service providers and carriers that are faced with massive overhauls that will realistically serve only a fraction of their subscriber base. Add to this scenario the fact that by most estimates 70-80 percent of the installed base of voice mail systems are not Y2K-compliant and need varying degrees of patching to avoid very messy situations.

But wait - there's another, much more compelling reason to start thinking about the form your next voice mail system will take. Given the opportunity, would you replace your existing voice mail system with technology that doesn't support emerging voice-packet networks, or replace it with technology that not only provides for voice mail, but an entirely new means of IP-based communication? Asking this question raises an interesting proposition: As carriers build-out voice-packet networks, will DSP-based "record-and-store" technology, and its unified messaging derivatives, become obsolete and eventually be displaced?

Yes, it is true that voice mail messages stored in a "proprietary" voice mail system database can be made to generate a voice packet and be transported over TCP/IP. But you can start getting into trouble when existing IP communication servers are not standardized to accept and disseminate voice messages from VPIM or other protocols. It is for this reason that voice mail system vendors offering unified messaging upgrades must recommend a particular mail server as part of the offering.

Emien, a new Sun Microsystems solutions partner, believes it has the answer. Emien has introduced CommBuilders, an Internet telephony, or packet messaging solution that leverages some best of breed technologies to create what just might become the standard architectural paradigm for next millennium voice messaging.

CommBuilders relies on Sun UltraSPARC servers, the Solaris 7.0 OS, and two easily deployable Java technology-based software tools that stretch the envelope on voice messaging technology by providing for robust call management and messaging of voice packets.

J-VPI 2.0 (for Voice Packet Interconnect), is a software-based centralized "packet engine" solution that resides on a Sun UltraSPARC server and transforms voice and fax traffic from traditional circuit switch networks into IP packets, and conversely, transforms IP packets back into standard signals for outbound circuit switched transmission. J-VPI doesn't rely on expensive and proprietary DSP boards for circuit-to-packet conversion - it's all accomplished in software. Sun's HSI/P Quad T1 board provides the carrier network connectivity.

J-VPI 2.0 supports SS7 and ISDN as well as MGCP (Media Gateway Control Protocol developed in conjunction with Level 3 and other packet network carriers and VoIP vendors), in addition to all networking protocols and security functions native to Solaris 7. J-VPI 2.0 fully exploits Solaris' 64-bit architecture and advanced networking management features.

Working in conjunction with J-VPI 2.0 is the J-IVR Tool, a Java-based IVR application generator licensed from Montreal-based Uniforce Informatique Inc. Within the J-IVR Tool are ACD features to manage, in real time, the voice packets generated by J-VPI's packet engine or any VoIP voice-packet device regardless of vendor. Combined, the J-VPI and J-IVR Tools can be placed at any point along circuit-switched networks (together on a single UltraSPARC server or separated via distributed servers), providing transparent PSTN-to-IP conversion, and network-based call management and messaging. What's more, the J-IVR Tool can reside outside a network's existing VoIP edge device(s), providing full IVR functionality for call management and messaging for the VoIP device and for voice packet-based networks.

The CommBuilders tools can be deployed on Sun's UltraSPARC 5 workstations for as few as 100 end users to high-end Sun Enterprise servers for hundreds of thousands, and do not need any proprietary applications - just off-the-shelf, straight out of the price book Sun applications and hardware. No advanced skills are necessary for deployment, as the J-IVR Tool employs JavaBeans and drag-and-drop features and menus. In order to use CommBuilders, Emien doesn't mandate the removal of existing voice mail servers. In fact, the CommBuilders' solution can work in conjunction with existing voice mail servers, particularly for Telco service providers.

From the "Pickup" bean handling packeted calls, to the "Hang-up" bean handling call termination, it's Java telephony at its best. With the JACL scripting bean, a non-programming interface, RAD development, prototyping and/or testing for service deployment are easily accomplished.

A circuit call is transformed to voice packets via J-VPI, and managed by the J-IVR (DTMF prompts, end-user greetings, etc.). The voice packets are then streamed to, for example, a local or remote mail server such as SIMS or an object database such as Oracle 8 for retrieval by TUI or GUI. The combined tools are not just voice-message generators, as circuit calls can be converted and streamed to call centers, H.323 clients, wireless devices, Web phones - in short, any device that can manage voice packets.

The tools never record a message, but rather they work as a software switch that converts PSTN to IP. They can receive and manage a voice packet from an existing VoIP device or directly from a voice packet network, and manage and/or store the call or message to whatever "legacy" communication server or packet-ready device the end user has deployed.

Layer on an LDAP server - such as Sun's Directory Service 3.1 - to control J-IVR, and a wealth of call control, messaging, and find-me/follow-me type service deployment schemes can be enabled, including numerous network administration options. The tools provide "first-generation" voice-packet control and management, while fully supporting DTMF and custom digital signaling.

Via Sun's HSI/P Quad T1 board, a circuit T1 from a DSU/CSU feeds the UltraSPARC server directly. The J-VPI Tool converts the circuit call to IP and can forward the call directly to a voice packet-ready device. Or, it can forward the call directly to the J-IVR for end-user announcements. For call control and message functionality, in turn, the voice packet is streamed directly to a mail server, for example, as a message. Conversely, a call from a voice packet ready device or Internet telephony network can be streamed to the J-VPI for conversion to circuit switch and forwarded accordingly.

CommBuilders presents an elegant solution for service providers to deploy open, scalable, and interconnecting Internet telephony voice management and messaging services throughout a network - LAN, MAN, or WAN - a feat not possible via traditional "record and store" technology. For ISPs seeking to generate new service revenue, the tools put them into the voice messaging game without having to deploy monolith voice mail or unified messaging servers. And, with an IP-billing component, CommBuilders can become a complete service provider package. For telcos, CommBuilders can reside in front of or behind currently deployed switches, PSTN or IP, regardless of the vendor supplying the switch.

So far, Emien has managed to intrigue the powers that be at Sun to the point that Sun is busy educating their sales force on the solution and hopes to incite customers and prospects to jump on this next-gen messaging bandwagon. Emien also claims to have a number of large corporate users interested in trials. My only complaint at this time is - change the name of the product. I'd happily offer up Packet Messenger - gratis.

I've been wondering when someone would take the bull by the horns and start deploying Internet telephony in an e-commerce environment. From where I'm sitting, it's pretty much as good a killer app for VoIP as there can be. Allowing Web surfers cum prospective customers to converse by voice with call center agents when there's a question or problem at their e-commerce site gives electronic commerce the same customer-service foothold as telesales operations. It's a natural, and a huge potential boost for fledgling e-commerce startups.

Happily, I can report that IDT's Net2Phone operation has launched an Internet e-commerce portal, dubbed EZSurf, that is powered by Internet telephony and is boldly going where no Web site has gone before.

EZSurf, launched on February 1 and marketed directly to over 1 million registered Net2Phone users, plans to integrate voice, graphics, and eventually video and push technology to enhance the online shopping experience. EZSurf provides users, particularly those living outside the United States, with the value-added information needed to buy products online. As the international market increasingly becomes a focus in truly globalizing e-commerce, EZSurf offers visitors a choice of retailer sites as well as important information regarding each vendor, such as multiple payment options (including billing against their Net2Phone accounts), availability of global shipping, ability to track orders online, etc. Additionally, by incorporating Internet telephony communication services, visitors are able to contact retailers via voice interaction in real time without the need to visit the retailer's Web site.

With 89 percent of computer users worrying about transactional security (from a Dell/Louis Harris & Associates poll), and 62 percent of cybershoppers so frustrated they've aborted a transaction (from Zona Research), EZSurf allows a Web surfer to speak to a "live" human representative, alleviating security fears and adding the human element to an increasingly digitized endeavor.

In addition, Web sites frequently do not take international users into account when selling their products online. EZSurf provides information regarding international shipping, multiple payment options, and multilingual support. Also, Click2Talk will allow users around the world to speak with the retailer from anywhere free of charge, using U.S. toll-free numbers.

And even though many online retailers have gone to extensive lengths to encourage users to purchase online, many users prefer to browse through the site, conduct research, and compare values. Users finally place the actual purchase order over the phone, though many sites fail to make a phone number available for ordering. By adding a live human to the equation while providing additional relevant information, EZSurf aims to help close the sale significantly faster and enhance the customer's online experience.

IDT's Internet telephony services, Net2Phone and Click2Talk, are fully integrated into EZSurf, allowing visitors to call retailers, friends, and family via the Internet and ring their plain old telephones. Additionally, IDT will embed an EZSurf icon into the next release of the Net2Phone client software, which will be bundled into more than 30 million packages through relationships with IBM, Creative Labs, Packard Bell/NEC Europe and others. EZSurf also features Click2CallMe, IDT's new Web-based callback service.

With EZSurf, IDT is making a bold gamble to prove that Internet telephony-powered Web sites are ready for prime time. I hope IDT hits the jackpot, because it will spur the rest of the industry to follow suit.

Marc Robins is Associate Group Publisher for INTERNET TELEPHONY AND CTI magazines. His column, Mind Share, appears monthly in the pages of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine. Marc readily looks forward to your feedback.

Have you discovered an X Factor product and service you wish the rest of the world knew about? If enough feedback warrants, this X Factor column might become a regular. What do you think? E-mail Marc at mrobins@tmcnet.com with your discoveries, comments, suggestions, complaints, and praise.

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