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Communications ASP -- TMC Labs Reviews
March/April 2001

3399 Peachtree Road NE, Ste. 600
Atlanta, GA 30326
Ph: 404-487-8301
Web site: www.orchestrate.com

Price: $9.95 monthly for Orchestrate Gold, $19.95 for Platinum. Additional charges include $9.95 for one-time setup, 4.9 cents per minute for Web or domestic calls and fax deliveries, and 6.9 cents per minute for calls using the companys toll-free access number.

Installation: 4.5
Documentation: 2.5
Features: 3.5
GUI: 2.5
Overall: B-

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 ASP).

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 marketing messages.

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).

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 placed.

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 free.

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.

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