In our premiere issue TMC
Labs reviewed services from 3Cube, a CASP offering Web-based faxing and
phone conferencing. In the end, we concluded that 3Cube could even further
improve upon their model by offering a variety of communications services
through a real Web "portal" -- namely, a customized,
content-driven interface to which users would return throughout their day or
their single Web session. Looking back, it's almost as if we'd written a
prescription for Orchestrate.com. Orchestrate is a unified messaging service
allowing users to access voice, e-mail, and fax messages through a single
inbox, accessed via a "My Orchestrate" Web portal containing
customized news and information links. Additionally, users can access their
messages through the telephone or have these messages -- as well as calls --
forwarded to them by a personal assistant.
No surprises here: Installation (or "setup," a term that is really
more appropriate for Web-based CASPs) is a four-step process which involves
choosing service options, entering credit card and billing information into
a Web-based form, then clicking "submit." Of note is the fact
that, up front, nothing appears to be stated about secure credit practices.
Clicking on the company's privacy statement does lead you to an explanation
indicating that credit and other personal information will not be shared,
but that's it: The company does not indicate having partnered with any
third-party privacy organization. As a comparison, 3Cube (reviewed in our
January/February issue) at least publishes their status as a licensee of the
TRUSTe Privacy Program.
Security, not just during sign-up but most importantly in the lifecycle
of a customer's patronage, should become a key measure of quality when
evaluating CASPs. After all, a lot of information and systems traditionally
stored at the customer premise will suddenly be shipped off into cyberspace,
and users should start to question providers as to how that information will
be maintained and dealt with -- not just from a security perspective, but
also in terms of "quality of service" issues like redundancy (see
our roundup of
Application Servers in the January/February issue of Communications
The documentation is certainly not terrible, though neither is it
spectacular. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say its
insufficiency in certain areas --which we could summarize as a lack of a
real, consumer-style tutorial approach -- is symptomatic of a greater issue.
Cursory documentation is indicative of a company that has not formulated
a real, sweeping usability strategy, covering all aspects of their product
or service. This is particularly troublesome within the CASP space; it makes
this reviewer want to take Orchestrate's developers by the lapels and say
"Do you realize the opportunity you're missing?" The opportunity
is to take a "B-to-C" approach with a service largely pitched at
business users, encouraging them to show the same brand recognition and
loyalty to products and services they utilize as consumers. Orchestrate has
started to do this with the custom information on their "My
Orchestrate" portal. But taking the next step with a really
consumer-style, tutorial approach to online Help would benefit them. It's
another way not only to get customers really comfortable with your product,
but to secretly pitch them on its key features by walking them through and
allowing them to experience functionality in the context of your own
Orchestrate takes essential unified messaging concepts -- namely, the
ability to access voice mail, e-mail, and faxes either through a single
inbox or through the telephone -- and combines them with a customized Web
portal interface containing links to news and other information.
Message "filtering" allows you to create rules indicating how
different types of messages from different parties should be handled, so
that they can, for example, be routed to alternate e-mail addresses, stored
for Web/phone access, discarded, or selected for notification via an e-mail
address linked to a mobile device. One compelling feature allows your
response to a message to be sent via a phone-initiated fax transmission.
The "Platinum" account to which TMC Labs was assigned also
included text to speech and automated personal assistant features. Like any
good unified messaging service, the Platinum account also allows you to
designate a forwarding number (i.e. mobile phone) so that calls placed to
your toll-free number would in turn be routed to another phone of your
choice, enabling people to reach you anywhere. The Personal Assistant then
gives you the opportunity to take or send the call to voice mail.
Other features include Web-initiated calls and conferencing as well as
remotely hosted task lists, calendars, and contact managers.
Orchestrate performed well on tests of almost all its major features. Faxes,
voice mails, and text-to-speech transcribed e-mails sent to the test account
were fully accessible via phone or the Orchestrate Web site. The
call-forwarding feature in particular was especially impressive, and
performed exactly as described in the section above, with immediacy.
Unfortunately, try as we might, we were not able to get the Web
call/conference feature to work consistently. A rather confusing layout may
have led us to configure it improperly, but regardless, nine times out of
ten it appeared to drop our requests to call various contacts and simply
returned to the main conferencing page leaving the call unplaced. When it
did work it was impressive, but we're forced to credit Web conferencing
company 3Cube with excelling in this category.
Other than that, Orchestrate's features performed well and as they were
supposed to -- in spite of some difficulty getting to and navigating them in
the first place (see below).
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Orchestrate's interfaces are often dense, crowded, and hard to read. Crucial
features get lost in a lot of detail, much of which may be unnecessary. In
the company's defense, this latest iteration is a great improvement on the
interface used when TMC Labs first obtained its test account, and is
probably due for yet another upgrade in the future. As for suggesting
specific improvements on this topic that might loosen up the appearance of
things, that would be venturing into the area of graphic design, an area
which we're not really qualified to comment on.
A lot of technology companies get caught in this trap, stretching
themselves too thin between distinct business models spawned by the Internet
era: One model deals with systems and structures, the other with sound,
light, and color. In any case, if a company like Orchestrate is going to try
and do both, they had best learn to do them both well and correctly. We
encountered a couple of problems of each type, i.e. on both the aesthetic
and structural side.
At their worst, the aesthetic issues above manifested themselves by
making features like the contacts manager and Web conferencing hard to use.
The density of the screen details made one unsure if one was clicking in the
right spot. Symptomatic of general navigation issues was a profusion of
interim screens between a link to a feature and the feature itself,
particularly with regard to the Web call feature.
On the structural side of things there are problems like those mentioned
above with regard to making Web calls -- i.e. call requests simply not being
Succeeding as a CASP is largely going to be about building trust. Why, a
potential customer might ask, should I trust an outside source with the
types of data and communications services I've always managed in-house?
There is something Orchestrate can do with their service in order to build
this trust: They can join a respected dotcom tradition and give it away for
Orchestrate might offer the service free for a temporary trial period,
after which users are encouraged to pay for full subscriptions or remain on
using a limited, "light" version. Consumers feel less pressure and
more willingness to "play" with a service -- gradually porting
over more and more of their contacts and trying out new features -- when
they don't feel pressured to squeeze value out of something they've paid
for. By the time the trial period is up the service has become an important
part of their day-to-day lives. A free service obviously builds up a greater
user base, allowing the company not only to spread the word and show numbers
to the money people, but to employ a variety of tactics that bring in
revenue according to the aforementioned traditional Web model (advertising,
opt-in list brokering, affiliate agreements, etc.).
Most importantly though, users trying out a free service are not so
critical if something like the Web conferencing feature is a bit buggy at
first. Bugs are sadly inevitable, but the ASP model offers an ideal solution
by enabling providers to offer instant and transparent upgrades once they
are fixed. It would be a shame if a company like Orchestrate -- one that has
a great service going through inevitable growing pains -- misses out on
long-term customers by losing them at the outset.
To The March/April 2001 Table Of Contents ]