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Communications ASP -- TMC Labs Reviews
January/February 2001

PhoneCube and FaxCube

3Cube, Inc.
577 Airport Blvd., Ste. 180
Burlingame, CA 94010
Ph: 650-373-2500; Fx: 650-373-2525
Web site: www.3cube.com

Price: FaxCube, monthly fees ranging from $7.50 $30; PhoneCube, 27 cents a minute (per participant)

Editors' Choice Award

Installation: 5
Documentation: 3.75
Features: 5
GUI: 4.75
Overall: A

[ Go Right To: Inaugural Communications ASP TMC Labs Address ]

Here's a science fiction scenario: A meteor, passing unusually close to the Earth, gives off a strange form of radiation that paralyzes our ability to communicate via fax or conference calling. Would all of our cherished and necessary human systems cease to exist? Would civilization crumble? Hardly. And yet, many organizations and individuals would be seriously put out. That's because, however "transitional" or "conditional," there are still times when these forms of communication prove their necessity. Until e-mail makes a transition to true ubiquity, and until we develop a real alternative to handwritten signatures for authentication-over-distance, faxing will have to suffice. As for conference calling, though you may not use it every day, there are occasional conditions under which it proves extremely useful. All of this presents a problem: Namely, why should I invest in the purchase and maintenance of hardware, software, and systems that I may only use once in a while? The answer is, you shouldn't. Let someone else take care of all that while you leverage the benefits at a much more affordable price. Meaning, subscribe to a communications ASP.

Among a growing number of CASP flavors, 3Cube, Inc. is of the Web-based, "portal"-type variety. Through its PhoneCube service, users log on to a Web site, allowing them to very affordably schedule immediate or future phone conferences involving any participant at any location. Those participants need not be subscribers, nor need they be online. If they are online though, they can additionally participate in presentation features (which we understand includes the recent addition of application sharing, though that feature will not be covered in this review). FaxCube is a separate service allowing you to, well, send and receive faxes very quickly, either through the Web or via e-mail.

Like any Web-based ASP truly worthy of the term, 3Cube does not require you to download anything -- plug-ins included -- in order to use either its PhoneCube or FaxCube services. You enter your name, credit card info, and other billing information into a standard Web-based form, submit it, and setup is complete. In this regard, "installation" as it's often covered in other TMC Labs reviews, is really a non-issue.

Pressing the "Help" button on the FaxCube interface opens a separate Web page in the browser window originally used for login. There you'll find a FaxCube "User Manual" which amounts to a Web page containing thirteen topic links arranged into three major categories. Though straightforward and relatively comprehensible, information found under each topic is rather cursory -- tending to amount, at times, to not much more than one-line descriptions of service features. 3Cube seems to assume their application is self-explanatory enough not to require step-by-step instructions. Maybe they're right, though as a major selling point of the whole ASP experience, ease-of-use can only be enhanced through clear Help documentation.

As for PhoneCube, its only dedicated piece of Help documentation is a cursory "Quick Start" page that appears solely upon login. There is no way to manually trigger this small pop-up screen, so if you accidentally click the "Show This to Me Later" or "Don't Show This to Me Again" links appearing on it you will either have to wait until your next login to read it, or never again, at all. Other than this Quick Start screen, the only Help available is found in a series of FAQs linked to by pressing the Help button. Rather than serving as dedicated documentation, these are the same multi-purpose FAQs anyone who visits the PhoneCube Web site can access.

If we were to include customer support as an aspect of documentation, it would seriously improve 3Cube's rating in this category. We found their tech support exceptionally reachable, knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.

FaxCube's main feature is the ability to send and receive faxes through the Web. For the former, a simple Web-based form allows you to enter a fax number, recipient name, and company name. From there you can attach documents in a variety of text formats ranging from .DOC to WordPerfect, and graphic files ranging from .PDF to .PSD. At least thirty-something formats are supported in all. An "EmailToFax" feature allows you to forego using the Web interface altogether by composing fax content in an e-mail, including any desired attachments, and sending it on to 3Cube.

Users also gain access to an address book allowing them to store addresses in both single entries and in groups for broadcast faxing. Like the EmailToFax feature, it's also possible to register a broadcast fax list or a frequently used document attachment with 3Cube by sending them an e-mail.

As for viewing faxes that have been sent to you, this can be done in a couple of ways. You're assigned a toll-free fax number upon account setup. Any faxes sent to that number are simultaneously posted to a user's private account page and sent as a .PDF e-mail attachment. When people send faxes to the toll-free fax number, you receive an e-mail with the fax attached as a .PDF file. If you log in to your account via the FaxCube Web site, you'll also be able to view the fax there.

PhoneCube allows you to easily create conference calls including up to 32 active participants. Conference managers can use the interface to create calls on the spot -- adding participants either manually or through a Quick Dial list of existing contacts -- or can set them up for a future time through a separate PhoneCube "Scheduler" application. Participants need not be online to be included in the conference, though if they are, they can take part in Web presentations held by the conference manager. During these the manager can upload documents to the Web for shared viewing; if participants have logged in to a presentation Web site, then they gain access to whiteboard features allowing them to annotate the document through a variety of tools. Additionally, participants can instant message each other privately, and the conference manager is able to mute, disconnect, or place on hold any participants of his/her choosing.

FaxCube performed exceptionally well on tests of all its major features. It sent prompt and readable faxes through both the Web-based form and through the EmailToFax method. This held true for both single recipient and broadcast fax transmissions. Although we didn't time it, it can't have been more than a minute between sending a fax and having it arrive at its location, along with a confirmation message e-mailed to the sending address.

The EmailToFax feature was particularly impressive. Contrary to what you might expect, there was no noticeable difference in response time -- i.e., how long it takes 3Cube to process and send your fax -- between this method and the Web-based one. Overall it may even be a little faster, since you don't have to log in or wait for the various Web pages to be served.

FaxCube also excelled as a means for receiving faxes. A toll-free fax number is given to you upon sign-up. Faxes sent to this number are sent to your e-mail address as .PDF attachments; you can also log in to the FaxCube site to view and print .GIF versions of them there. When viewed at the Web site, faxes can also be zoomed, rotated, etc.

Unlike FaxCube's more bare bones HTML interface, PhoneCube and Conference Scheduler are Java-scripted applications. This not only gives them a much "slicker" look and feel, but also adds a degree of browser independence to their functionality (i.e., you don't have to wait for a new Web page to load every time you click a button on the interface). We used PhoneCube to create an ad hoc conference and Scheduler to plan one for the immediate future. Within these main methods of creating a conference, there are a few means that can be used to summon participants. Scheduler, for example, offers "Call Me" or "Meet Me" capabilities. Through the former, participants are called at the phone number specified by the Conference Manager, alerted by a recorded voice that a conference is about to begin, and then connected to the other participants. The Meet Me option, on the other hand, sends an e-mail to desired participants including a toll-free number and PIN they can use to enter the conference.

Everything worked smoothly: Not only did each of these methods effectively connect all of the conference participants, but provided a very clear, high quality PSTN connection. Once a conference is initiated, a Conference Manager has the ability to mute, disconnect, or place any participant on hold. He or she can additionally bring participants online for a Web presentation.

One of the main presentation features allows you to upload a document so that it can be viewed by all participants, who can subsequently annotate and mark it up using the included drawing tools. Unfortunately, the Word document we uploaded appeared much too small to read on the presentation screen, and we had used a pretty standard 12-point sized font in the original version. PhoneCube's drawing tools were certainly fun to use, though the question remains how useful they really are. To make effective use of the "whiteboard" feature for example, one would probably need to use something more responsive than a mouse in order to produce anything more complex then simple shapes. As for instant messaging -- which is available when participants are online -- it worked well, and would provide an effective way for individual participants to "whisper" to each other during a conference.

In general, PhoneCube performed well on tests of its major features, providing good voice quality, compelling additional features, and effective conference setup and management.

Other than those specific issues related to PhoneCube's presentation features, documentation and navigation were the main areas within each service that seemed likely candidates for improvement. The two areas are related to each other: Most products have some navigation issues upon first release, issues which strong documentation will help users to negotiate up until the point they are resolved. We've already mentioned ways in which the Help files might be improved; an example of a characteristic navigation issue on the other hand is seen in FaxCube. The interface does not offer a constant toolbar with access to all features -- i.e., the topic links change depending on which screen you've selected -- so you tend to lose your orientation. Additionally, both products would be much easier to use if they opened as few browser windows as possible. This becomes confusing regardless of how intuitive or well documented any GUI is.

As stated in the introduction to this review, one of the best reasons to subscribe to a CASP service like PhoneCube or FaxCube is to leverage the benefits of transitional/conditional forms of technology, without the associated cost and hassle. 3Cube will do that for you, while also greatly enhancing these media via particular benefits of e-mail and the Web. Although we did encounter some small issues, as mentioned, we suspect these are not much more than growing pains. We also suspect that 3Cube has the potential to stake out its own niche among Web-based CASPs in this particular category (i.e. that of "transitional/conditional" services). If they were to gradually accrue more media offerings (mail services, unified messaging, who knows what else), they might even transcend this category to become a more wide-reaching, hosted communications portal. One step in this direction might be secured by allowing joint subscribers to access PhoneCube and FaxCube through a single Web page; this would improve navigation and branding now while serving as a placeholder for a more diverse future service. In any case, one would suspect they could find plenty of business right where they are, at least until the arrival of our metaphorical meteor. 

[ Return To The January/February 2001 Table Of Contents ]

Inaugural Communications ASP TMC Labs Address

Since this is the inaugural TMC Labs review within a new publication, we'd like to take this opportunity to "renew our vows," restating the intent of TMC Labs both for new readers and in light of a new product category. TMC Labs is an independent editorial group providing objective product and service reviews, written from a technical perspective, for all of TMC's various publications. Within this description are three characteristics that we believe are essential to providing the best possible product information. The first is objectivity. Regardless of a vendor's degree of presentation -- and their status as an advertiser or non-advertiser -- we'll describe their product objectively as we find it, from a technical perspective. This perspective is the second distinguishing characteristic. Unless we've indicated otherwise, readers can be assured that we've tested the major features of a product described in any TMC Labs review, evaluating them from the perspective of engineering and usability. This is as opposed to relying too heavily upon the "story" of a product, while still taking that story into account. Hence the third and final characteristic, which is independence. As Technology Editors, we hope to assume an independent standpoint somewhere in between concept (or story) and engineering -- holding compelling product ideas accountable to real-world functionality, and vice versa.

With all that said, how will what we do differ given the introduction of a new product category, namely communications ASPs (CASPs)? Let's use a measure of caution right from the start: In business, acronyms are used indiscriminately, so we'd rather not prematurely limit ourselves by coining a restrictive CASP definition. It's safe to say, however, that a CASP is any provider of communications products or services who, through a remotely-hosted model, allows individuals and organizations to leverage needed functionality without the cost and hassle associated with installation on site. This is still rather vague, but nevertheless provides us with something against which to measure the subjects of our reviews. Namely, how "remote" is a given ASP? They may host your application server, but do they still require you to purchase it and pay a direct maintenance charge? If they're a Web-based "portal" such as the 3Cube services we reviewed for this issue, how much -- if any -- client installation do they require? Is all of their documentation available online? Most importantly, is a given CASP thoroughly capitalizing on the benefits of a remote model, providing a marked change in the way their products are experienced, by virtue of the remote model?

These types of questions will remain as sparse but reliable guideposts in what is still largely an uncharted territory, one we hope you will enjoy exploring with us in coming issues of this publication.

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