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Communications ASP -- TMC Labs Reviews
March/April 2001

HotVoice
HVC Technologies 
(Formerly HotVoice Communications International)
333 W. Evelyn Ave.
Mountain View, CA 94041
Ph: 650-625-0014; Fx: 650-625-0015
Web site:
www.hotvoice.com

Price: HotVoice offers a variety of service packages ranging from Basic, which includes 10 MB of disk space and 30 voice/fax messages per month at no charge; to Gold, which includes 300 MB of disk space and 900 voice/fax messages for $24.95 per month. 

Editors' Choice Award

RATINGS (05)
Installation: 5
Documentation: 4.75
Features: 4.75
GUI: 4.75
Overall: A-


The purchase of new communications equipment is a big decision, a bigger investment, and an even bigger undertaking, for any size company. Technology is playing the lead role in today's business marketplace. A state-of-the-art communications system is not only vital to maintaining today's business balance, but also to achieving, and remaining "plugged in" to the customer voice. Many businesses are perpetually playing catch-up, sinking more and more money into legacy communications technology to keep themselves out of the dark ages, and provide employees with the latest tools to stay competitive. This "technology trap" can be ruinous to otherwise potentially successful companies.

But as new technologies develop, they spread impartially in all directions creating some seemingly alternative routes to this great expense -- one being a new breed of application service provider (ASP) called a communications ASP, or CASP. ASPs have been gaining popularity the last few years for hosting a variety of services from by-the-hour gaming, to tax-season software, to complete office suites. Users are allowed to utilize the software services remotely, without loading anything (or very little) to their desktops in exchange for a small rental or membership fee. Within the ASP genre, CASPs are beginning to crop up filling the greatly needed niche of reduced-cost communications. HotVoice Communications International has emerged into this market retailing HotVoice: A CASP delivering services such as global unified messaging, call forwarding, e-mail, fax, wireless application protocol (WAP) access, phone, and WAP e-mail reply via voice --all for free.

INSTALLATION
As with many ASPs, HotVoice requires no installation. Its unified-messaging inbox can be accessed with any browser. Though it is necessary to fill out a form enabling you to start a HotVoice account, it will only take a few minutes to complete. The standard information is required: Passwords, some user information (name, address, etc...), and not much else. A small utility (about one MB) is available called the HotVoice Communicator, which looks similar to AOL's Instant Messenger. It runs independently as long as you have an IP connection. HotVoice Communicator is also free and integrates with HotVoice, bringing additional functionality to any desktop. Communicator provides various types of notification along with instant messaging and talk capabilities. If trouble should arise viewing a fax, Acordex DocView can also be downloaded from the same location as HotVoice Communicator. This should alleviate any potential viewing problems you may experience.

DOCUMENTATION
Help and support are available throughout the HotVoice Web site. Even the home page supplies potential members with a Support tab. The home page also supplies links to overviews, business solutions, and a description of the HotVoice management team. Icons route surfers to a document link if they're curious and want additional information about each major feature. All help avenues point to a FAQ page and a User Guide. The FAQs are arranged according to feature, denoted by a small icon. The User Guide appears to have been indexed chronologically. The support and help answered major questions/issues that arose while we were testing. The registration page is also worth a mention, constructed in such a way that a brief description or explanation is provided to the right of each input field. The WAP functionality also seemed to be covered in great detail.

FEATURES
HotVoice Communications bills its CASP HotVoice as a next-generation communication service. HotVoice does provide an alternative approach to communications for both personal and business needs. The service integrates e-mail, fax service, and voice mail, all of which can be retrieved from the unified messaging inbox. Voice over IP (VoIP), instant messaging, and message alert features are supported through HotVoice Communicator. HotVoice also offers a global network of gateways designed for local accessibility, and members within the US are provided with a toll-free gateway number. Other features include:

  • Worldwide voice mail and fax sending and retrieval via toll-free/local gateway numbers;
  • Voice mail/fax sent to unified messaging inbox via phone;
  • Web-based e-mail;
  • E-mail forwarding;
  • Web browser access to unified messaging inbox;
  • HotVoice Communicator enables desktop message notification, VoIP, and instant messaging;
  • HotVoice Communicator integrates with Microsoft Outlook;
  • Web-based calendar and address book;
  • Phone access to address book and unified messaging inbox;
  • Always Follow Me (AFM) routes incoming calls to a list of personalized phone numbers (this feature is currently in a beta testing stage);
  • WAP accessible unified messaging inbox;
  • WAP e-mail reply via voice; and
  • Pager and cell phone message notification (devices with domain name functionality only).

OPERATIONAL TESTING
TMC Labs focused on the core functionality of this service. Its unified messaging capability was paramount to us. We also liked the Communicator utility and as a consequence took some time to test its functionality as well. One area we regret not being able to fully test is WAP. Unfortunately all of our WAP-enabled phones were signed out of inventory at the time of this review, so we were unable to test the WAP e-mail reply via voice. We did however test some of the messaging functionality via a WAP simulator.

E-mail is of course one of the core features of HotVoice and also easily tested. A HotVoice e-mail address is comprised of your "alias" or logon name, and the hotvoice domain -- that is: username@hotvoice.com. The inbox is reminiscent of a Hotmail or Juno account in that the aesthetics are similar. We were effectively able to set (standard) filters to route spam or e-mails containing specific words to the trash. The block sender functionality is also available. We examined the forward e-mail and voice mail option as well. They worked great, and while not only forwarding the messages to another address, a copy was also deposited in the HotVoice inbox -- just in case it was missed at the forwarding address. Spell check is available, though we wished you could view the entire document and check spelling simultaneously.

Voice mail works as well as any industry-standard premise system. Though it's not quite as feature-rich, functionality exists to check your voice mail from the unified messaging inbox, or have it forwarded to, say your work e-mail address. Additionally, you can retrieve voice mail from any phone by dialing into the toll-free gateway (U.S. only), entering your account number (HotVoice suggests using your home phone), and your account password. Conversely, a person interested in contacting you a via a voice mail message needs your account number.

HotVoice Communicator is a downloadable utility or client of the HotVoice service. Communicator allows you to instant message another member, make and receive VoIP calls from your PC, make and receive calls across the PSTN (via the H.323 protocol), and receive alerts when new messages arrive in your inbox. Instant messaging works great, though it isn't quite as feature-rich as say, its AOL counterpart, but it does offer standard functionality. We built a buddy list, which revealed TMC Labs members were logged on, and we were also able to change our online status to: Away, in a meeting, out to lunch, and so forth. We connected via voice and chatted with one another via VoIP, though with some latency and echo. Communicator also offers a co-browsing feature which allows the initiator to push Web pages to the person they're chatting with.

Communicator also allows HotVoice members to dial out, and receive calls from any PC. We tested both. Results varied, but were always acceptable. Though at times we found ourselves talking over one another a bit due to the delay, volume wasn't a problem, nor was the connection. Any of the local Bells could have been experiencing similar difficulty at that point in time as well, since we were partially using the PSTN to place or receive part of the calls.

The AFM feature is one of our favorites. Unfortunately at the time of testing it was still in the beta stage. Nevertheless, we tested it anyway. AFM allows you to devise a hierarchy of devices you'd like to route calls through based on your location at a given time. That is, it funnels calls to a series of phone numbers (which can be reordered or changed at any time from the inbox) depending on where you're most likely to be: Work, home, cell, a relative's house, HotVoice Communicator (if logged on) -- or any other device with a U.S. phone number. If a connection is not made at any of the numbers in the AFM Current Device list, the call terminates with the option to leave a voice mail in the unified messaging inbox. We didn't encounter a limit as to how many devices could be set, though there probably is some sort of cap, perhaps dictated by level of service. The gateway number for AFM at the time of testing was not the same as the toll-free number for the other features. This may or may not make it more difficult for others to connect with a HotVoice member, depending on the resolution when the feature achieves gold status.

WAP access provided a portion of the IP functionality. After login, a menu displayed presenting the number of new messages divided into three categories: New E-mail, New Voice, New Fax. Although those three message notifications are displayed, we only seemed able to access e-mail using our WAP simulator. We tested the functionality by reading and replying to some e-mails. It performed flawlessly. The advantage of the WAP simulator is that it gives us access to a full-size keyboard, a luxury obviously not supplied with any WAP-enabled cell phone, which can make e-mail response highly labor intensive. Instant messaging (IM) is also featured with WAP access. We tested this function and thought that WAP seems better suited for IM given its to-the-point linguistic behavior, and the unfriendliness of a wireless phone's alpha-numeric keypad.

Contacting a buddy via IM is simple because the WAP menu provides a buddy list lookup. It tells a member who's active on their list and a text message can be sent just as it would via IP. One question we had because we were using the simulator was: Is a wireless customer alerted if they receive an IM? We're guessing yes, that if you configure the wireless notification portion of your account, you'll receive some sort of incoming-message signal. All we could do was navigate to the Get Messages option, to see if a reply was sent to our outgoing IM. Since we were running the simulator, we didn't bother trying the voice response, which is also offered on the WAP menu.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
We liked the HotVoice service. It provides a valid, low-cost, unified communication alternative. We did uncover a few things that we would have done a little differently. Though in all fairness, it should be noted that several of the areas we're citing for a small change, or further development, are indeed still getting the "kinks worked out" by HotVoice themselves.

Though we do understand that the AFM feature was in the beta testing stage at the time TMC Labs reviewed the product, we thought a few things were worth mentioning. First and foremost, the feature does work when it connects, and works fairly well, with minimal latency, echo, and feedback. We're sure that as this feature is developed, HotVoice will provide many more local access numbers other than the sole gateway number in the 408 area code of California. Or perhaps some toll-free numbers in the same fashion as their unified messaging gateways. Either way, a local or toll-free call would be optimal.

We thought the functionality within AFM could be slightly refined. At the time of testing it didn't seem to be able to anticipate, or apply a "work around" for the instance when someone might pick up the phone at a location where no one is supposed to be. That is to say, within the AFM dialing protocol created by the user, a call is easily intercepted by anyone picking up the receiver at any of the specified digits. We thought that this function would be more effective if when a call is picked up accidentally (your cleaning lady, or your house sitting little brother Billy decides to answer your phone), a voice prompt identifies the incoming call as a HotVoice call when it is answered, and instructs the person answering to enter the account pin, in effect identifying the greeter as the sought-after party. If the pin isn't entered correctly, say within a few seconds, the call rolls on to the next destination until it terminates.

One other area of functionality we found ourselves wishing was available is the ability to read e-mail by phone. A text-to-speech (TTS) engine would do the trick. In all fairness to HotVoice, the User Guide does document that this functionality isn't available yet -- alluding to the fact that it will be available -- at some point. No word when though, as of this review.

CONCLUSION
Overall we liked the HotVoice CASP very much. Though some features are not available yet, and others are still beta testing, they exude potential providing shades of additional functionality to better connect global users. Local gateway numbers and U.S. toll-free gateways provide non-members with a simple and cost-effective means to contact subscribers, uniformly allowing members to access their accounts and use services. E-mail, fax, voice mail, and IM are essential business tools smaller companies may venture to try from a CASP, thus reducing hardware and associated costs, and providing relief from expensive maintenance and upgrades. Though, be advised: Communication services would then rest in the hands of another. In our opinion CASPs and ASPs are only going to grow in popularity with the offering of an alternative to high overhead costs due to premise equipment purchase and maintenance. We commend HotVoice Communications for launching HotVoice. It's a good product possessing many merits and certainly deserving of an Editors' Choice award.

[ Return To The March/April 2001 Table Of Contents ]







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