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Product Reviews
January 2001


Cross Talk -- VoIP "Click-To-Talk" Shootout: eStara, HearMe, Lipstream, WebDialogs

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Businesses have always looked for easier and better ways to communicate with their customers, with means of contact evolving from "snail mail" to e-mail, IVRs to the Web, and now from the traditional phone to Internet telephony. As an example of the latter, VoIP shows continued importance with the growth of Internet e-commerce and e-business in particular, enabling Web visitors to contact call center agents for technical support, place orders, and make general inquiries in much the same way they did through traditional telephony. How often have you gone shopping online, only to be frustrated by the inability to ask a simple question quickly and easily? As an e-commerce enabling technology, Internet telephony addresses just this problem, helping prevent abandoned shopping carts and appease impulsive online shoppers. Of course in some respects, we are "preaching to the choir" -- unless of course you are a new reader to INTERNET TELEPHONY�.

However, even seasoned Internet telephony experts may not be aware of some exciting products that VoIP-enable your Web site with NO customer premise equipment required, and with minimal setup and integration. Essentially, these companies are communications ASP (CASP) service providers that only require a "push-to-talk" button on your Web page, along with some HTML code which they provide.

This type of service provider terminates both ends (or legs) of the call. One leg of the call is VoIP coming from the customer's PC to the hosted CASP IP network. The other is made from the CASP's telephony resources and travels out through the PSTN to a business phone number specified by the company using the CASP's service, thus enabling a PC-to-phone call without any CPE VoIP gateways! We should point out that some VoIP CASPs actually keep the call in IP throughout the journey, and transmit the entire call over IP to the agent's desktop with a multimedia PC and headset.

In any event, we decided to do a comparison review of these "push-to-talk" VoIP service providers to see which ones were up to snuff and which ones were "all talk." In beginning to look at VoIP services we soon realized that some of them provide additional functionality to VoIP such as co-browsing, text chat, whiteboarding, and file transfer. TMC Labs decided to do an in-depth comparison of eStara's OneClick Contacts, HearMe's ClickAGENT, Lipstream's Live Voice, and WebDialogs' WebInteract Service.


OneClick Contacts

eStara, Inc.
10803 Park Ridge Blvd.
First Floor
Reston, VA 20191
Phone: 703-860-9510

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: A
Documentation: A
Features: B+
Overall: A-

eStara's OneClick Contacts is an embedded button for Web sites, e-mail, ad banners, and search engine links. Featuring a SIP-based solution, eStara utilizes a thin Java applet downloaded to the customer's PC in order to initiate a VoIP call across the Internet, through eStara's network and finally to a specified phone number associated with the embedded button.

Installing eStara was very simple. The first step was to fill out and then e-mail the "Link Customization" form letter they sent us. They also sent us two other documents, one of which contained installation instructions and the other contained a list of sample "push to talk" buttons that we could select (we could also create our own button). Within the "Link Customization" form, we filled out a series of questions, such as "hours of operation," "number to dial," "traverse an IVR," "e-mail back-out option," and more. We filled out all this information and e-mailed it back to eStara.

eStara then e-mailed us back a document containing a JavaScript file and some instructions. First we had to copy a JavaScript file called InitiateCall.js to a folder on our Web server. Next we created a test Web page containing a push-to-talk button along with some source code pasted from eStara's instructions.

Once this was complete, we proceeded with our tests. We clicked on the push-to-talk button and were presented with our browser's security warning about a program about to be installed. We clicked on "Yes" and were presented with a pop-up browser window telling us that the call was being connected. Within this browser window we had two options available, including ending the call or clicking a button to e-mail the agent. Once the call was connected, we had a five-minute conversation to test the voice quality and latency. We determined the latency to be minimal and the sound quality was very good. We did have some packet loss that broke up the conversation a couple of times, but overall, the sound quality so good that at times it didn't even seem like an Internet telephony phone call!

In addition, we also liked the fact that an agent could adjust the customer's microphone volume and that it could return to its original setting after the call was complete. This product also featured the capability of pushing predefined Web pages to the customer, but this was a one-way process (the customer couldn't push pages to an agent). Another advantage of the eStara solution is that the agent doesn't require any special software application to receive VoIP calls.

Overall, TMC Labs was quite pleased with the performance and quality of eStara's solution. With a very small client, minimal latency, and no encountered firewall issues, we were hard pressed to find anything to complain about. Still, we do have some feature suggestions, which is why it earned a B+ "Features" rating, although it did receive an overall grade of A-. We suggest adding two-way Web-push capability as well as text-chat, which will make eStara an even stronger contender within the communications ASP market.


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685 Clyde Avenue
Mountain View, CA 94043 USA
Phone: 650-429-3911

Editor's Choice Award

 RATINGS (0�5)
Installation: A
Documentation: A
Features: A-
Overall: A-

HearMe's ClickAGENT (formerly called Click&Talk) is an embedded Web button placed on enterprises' Web sites in order to allow browsing customers to reach agents through a VoIP call using either the SIP or H.323 protocol. A variation of this is VoiceCONTACT, which is a button placed in the signature of the e-mail of an agent so that recipients can respond to the sender through a VoIP call. HearMe also allows for voice enhanced e-mail (record a voice message and send it through e-mail), as well as moderated Web conferencing.

The installation uses HTML coding. This coding is very simple; an "<a href" command is used to link the button, an "img src" shows the graphic, and additional coding can be used to place the button in a particular area of the Web site. The only other step to the installation process was providing HearMe with the phone number, which we wanted the VoIP button to connect to, and they took care of the rest. In addition, HearMe sent us the basic HTML coding along with some documentation about their features and firewall compatibility issues. Some helpful hints also accompanied the small pop-up graphical interface. These hints sufficed in telling us what we needed to do.

Upon clicking the Web button, a pop-up applet appeared. With this applet, you can adjust volume settings for the microphone and speakers as well as choose whether to use the Ctrl key for speaking or use the hands-free mode. As for the VoIP call itself, the connect time took an average of slightly less than five seconds. Furthermore, the quality of the call was very good every time we called, and the latency was barely noticeable. However, when we tried to make a second phone call while the original screen was still available on our PC, we could not connect. An error message told us that the chat room (for voice calls) did not exist on the server. If we closed the original screen, we had no problem when reconnecting. We found that each chat room only existed for one call, so the particular chat room that we had used earlier no longer existed since it was only created for one session, and then erased after the callers left the room. For this reason, every call had to be made separately.

We also tried out the VoiceCONTACT button with a HearME representative. First, we checked to see if the representative was available, which we were told directly in the e-mail before even making the VoIP call, a unique and admirable feature. Then, we clicked on the button in the e-mail and connected with the agent in about thirty seconds. The call was clear enough that we had no problems communicating with each other, and we were also able to communicate through a text chat session. The software we were using was version 3.0, which had a limited interface. Version 3.5, which should be released shortly, is much more graphically driven. We look forward to examining that interface in the future.

HearMe's voice enhanced e-mail is very simple to use. All that needs to be done is to complete the e-mail address information, fill out any text you want to add, record your voice message, and send it. Upon receiving this e-mail, you can forward or reply to it. The only anomaly we noticed was that when we tried to reply to a message, the sender's address appeared in the recipient's e-mail box. This was obviously wrong. Most people don't want to send e-mails back to themselves.

For testing PC-to-PC and phone-to-PC Web conferencing, we first registered for a private conference room and were given the appropriate conference ID and passwords. We then could enter the room as a moderator, panelist, or participant. When you log in, you must choose whether or not you are entering from behind a firewall so that you may be sent to the conference room in the appropriate manner. Even though we were behind a firewall, we had no problems getting to the room. As far back as a couple of months ago, we had made a VoIP call through our firewall using HearMe's software, so we knew that they were one of the first to successfully achieve this feat. They also claim the ability to make VoIP calls through most firewalls, whether they are for small businesses or large enterprises. We have no reason to doubt this claim.

After our initial PC-to-PC Web conference call was completed, we called an 800 number from a regular phone so that that caller could dial in to the conference. For the most part, this worked when we tried it. However, there were a few occasions that we reached a busy signal when we called the 800 number. With this three-way conference, the voice quality was still good. The latency was a little more noticeable but was still at an acceptable level. We did find an occasional bug in the conference software. On two occasions when trying a conference call, the applet minimized without our command, and continued to do so when we brought it up again. We had to exit out and make a new call in order to stop this from happening. We also noticed that a participant who did not request the floor could hear the conference call. This would be okay if the moderator was aware of the participant's presence. Until the participant requests the floor, the moderator could not see him, at least as far as we could tell. HearMe should definitely address this factor.

One final note that we would like to mention is that HearMe's products can use the ASP or customer premise model. While we've been focusing on the ASP model, it may be advantageous to use the other model so that HearMe's products could work with other gateways. On the interoperability level, this advantage is very important.

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Live Voice

Lipstream Networks, Inc.
20401 Stevens Creek Blvd.
Cupertino, CA 95014
Phone: 408-861-8200

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: A
Documentation: A
Features: A-
Overall: A-

There are a number of ways to implement Lipstream's Live Voice application. In addition to the point-to-point model we tested for this Labs comparison -- which allows online consumers to make a Web-to-phone call to a customer service representative (CSR) through a voice-enabled e-commerce site -- a conference version allows group chat for as many as 300 participants. Among these participants is a moderator with "boot out" capability (meaning the ability to kick unruly participants out of a conference). Text chat also enables individual participants to communicate with each other in "whisper mode," undetected by other conference members. While Lipstream suggests business conference applications for this application on their site, they seem to have had most success with it as a vehicle for community/portal chat features, with Alta Vista, Excite, and MyFamily.com already serving as rather high-profile customers.

Within these particular applications -- namely community chat and point-to-point -- innumerable other variables are afforded by Lipstream's software development kit, whose APIs enable users to customize the interface while adding features like hands-free mode as well as conference recording and playback. An example of this kit in action is found in voice components of CRM player Kana's Realtime.

While we have tried Lipstream's community chat features in the past (through their own demonstration hosted on the Lipstream site), and found them exemplary, that was not what suited our purposes here. Lipstream's answer for that capability also happens to be their most turnkey solution, a push-to-talk type button requiring around 20 lines of HTML to implement.

We received an e-mail containing Lipstream's Integration Kit, which along with the aforementioned code and related files, also included a 30-page guide in .pdf format. A brief perusal of this documentation showed it to contain pretty much everything you might need or expect from basic instructions to port and firewall information, all clearly written and topically organized. We set up a Web server here in the lab and embedded the Lipstream application within a sample page. Then we e-mailed some required information to their engineering staff, including our server's IP address for authentication purposes as well as the phone numbers we wanted the Lipstream button to point to. Within a short time we were ready to go.

Acting as a simulated consumer and clicking on a sample Lipstream button, we were prompted to download and install Lipstream's proprietary ActiveX control -- a process that took a couple of seconds through our T1 connection and did not have to be repeated. After that, the application is initiated immediately each time the Lipstream Web button is pushed, taking maybe a second to launch. We conducted four trials, testing how much time elapsed between placement and connection of a call sent to our would-be customer service phone.

At an average of 4.5 seconds, Live Voice made the quickest connection of any of the products we evaluated, beating HearMe by a small, yet distinct, half-second margin.

As for sound quality and latency, the former was exceptional, and the latter was extremely minimal. Communication was clear, and felt almost as natural as a PSTN call with full duplex capability. A minor drawback is the Control key, which you have to hold down while speaking in the application we tested. You can remove the need to do this through Lipstream's Software Development Kit, though. The interface is very simple to use: In instances where chat is supported, "whisper mode" can be initiated by clicking on the colorful icon representing your desired collaborator. We also tried another permutation, created by changing a few lines of code, which allows a consumer to negotiate a company's IVR through a simple keypad.

Overall, readers shouldn't be put off by the fact that Lipstream doesn't (as of yet) offer features like Web push and co-browsing, as this is by no means an indication of a lesser product. True, their product may be improved by the inclusion of such features, yet at the same time, focusing on their voice network architecture -- which includes redundant servers located two router hops from the Internet's fiber optic backbone -- has obviously helped to ensure very high voice quality, even better on some counts than its more feature-rich competitors in this comparison. Additionally, an open software architecture may allow them to serve more types of clients, and allow those clients to implement their technology in a variety of new ways. For example: Lipstream provides Kana with a VoIP component, who in turn can now offer a full suite of CRM features to e-commerce vendors. Or, if you like it this way, Lipstream in that instance is serving as a B-to-B vendor for B-to-B vendors serving B-to-C's -- providing a trustable component for what's known as a true "enabling technology." In any case Lipstream remains one to watch within all permutations of the VoIP marketplace, both in direct sales to community and e-commerce sites and as a valued component to such CRM and customer service vendors as eGain and Kana, to name a few.

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WebInteract Service

WebDialogs, Inc.
Concord Road Corporate Center
300 Concord Rd.
Billerica, MA 01821
Phone: 978-439-9600


Editor's Choice Award

Installation: A
Documentation: A
Features: A+
Overall: A

WebDialogs' WebInteract Services is a very feature-rich VoIP service, featuring not only VoIP call through via a Web button, but also Web-call back via PSTN, co-browsing, text chat, file transfer, and more.

Installing this product simply required copy/pasting some HTML code provided by WebDialogs onto a Web page we created on a Web server connected to the Internet. The only modification needed for the HTML code was the "hash code," which actually makes use of your phone number. To calculate the hash code, we simply logged onto our WebDialogs account via the Web interface, went into the phone hash calculate feature, entered our phone number, and clicked on Submit. The phone hash code was returned and we simply cut and pasted this into the HTML code. Overall, the Web administration interface was pretty straightforward and easy to use. We were also able to run call reports from our browser and specify the date range of calls to retrieve. We do have a suggestion for the reporting module: It should also allow you to filter by failed calls only, PSTN calls only, VoIP calls only, as well as set ascending or descending date order. We should also point out that the Web administration interface also features a "real-time" activity screen for monitoring current calls.

We were a bit befuddled when we couldn't figure out how to send a file, so we grudgingly opened the online help file (As they say, when all else fails, read the directions!) The online agent help explained that the network administrator must set up an HTML file list beforehand. Essentially, a file transfer list containing a list of file names and locations needed to be set up ahead of time, containing entries such as <a href= "http://www.test.com/techsupport/faq.doc">List of Frequently Asked Questions</a>. Only the list of predetermined files can be FTP'ed to the customer, which is a good security measure to prevent agents from sending files off their hard disk. We also found that this feature is explained thoroughly in the printed Agent Quick Reference Guide. Overall, the online help file was pretty good and we had no complaints.

The Agent Quick Reference Guide was pretty good. While short and sweet, it did include a diagram of the Agent application with arrows and call out boxes explaining each button on the graphical user interface. In addition, a Network Administrator Quick Reference Guide was also available and it too was brief, yet it explained everything quite nicely in an easy to read format.

In order to test the service, we pretended to be a customer visiting our test site, and clicked on the call me button. We were presented with a Web form, which asked us for our name, e-mail address, and the type of call (PSTN or VoIP). We should point out other than the means of connecting to an agent (PSTN versus VoIP), the features are exactly the same. This means that co-browsing, text chat, file transfer, and WebInteract's other features all work similarly.

The first call from a PC requires the download of a program for the co-browsing feature. A small browser window pops up, but there is no warning that anything is downloading. This download took about 30 seconds on a 28.8K dial-up connection. While it is easy to notice the activity lights on the CPU are flashing, we recommend stating in the small browser windows, a phrase such as "Please wait..." so that customers are not confused.

For our first test, we chose VoIP and encountered some firewall issues. Our experience has been that this is fairly common. We were disappointed, however, that even though the VoIP call didn't go through, we were also unable to text-chat, or even co-browse, with the customer. If the customer does have some firewall issues to contend with, the agent cannot even "text chat" with the customer. The agent should still be able to co-browse, text chat, push Web pages, etc., even if the VoIP packets cannot pass through the firewall.

We know that those type of features are technically possible within the system through our findings in our next test in which we used WebInteract's PSTN Web call-back feature. Surprisingly, when we used Web call-back over the PSTN, co-browsing, text chat, and all the other features worked fine on the very same PC that was behind the firewall. Thus, the collaboration features are obviously not dependent on having a VoIP connection. Apparently the collaboration features have no problem getting past the firewall, so we feel that WebInteract should allow these collaboration features to work even when the VoIP call fails.

Other than the aforementioned issues, we were very pleased with the feature-set of WebInteract, which we found to be the most feature-rich of any of the products in this comparison review. When we resolved the firewall issue, the VoIP call performed flawlessly with good sound quality and fair latency. For those "non-techy" customers that don't have speakers and/or a microphone on their PC, the PSTN call-back option was a nice alternative, with the obvious advantage of superb voice quality.

In any event, we would be remiss if we did not address the agent interface, which is the true power of WebDialogs' WebInteract Service. We were most impressed with the power, flexibility, and ease of use the agent interface offers. The interface is very clean, with Internet Explorer 5 (or later) embedded into the bottom half of the screen. From the top-half of the screen an agent can connect to incoming VoIP or PSTN call-backs. Once connected, the agent has several options at his disposal: He can click on the camera icon to take a "snapshot" of a particular window and transmit it to the customer as an image, or can initiate a file transfer or text-chat.

The two most interesting features offered by the WebInteract Service are "co-browsing" and form-sharing. Both the agent and customer can push Web pages to each other. This feature enables the agent to control who can currently push Web pages. It can also be extended to include "form-sharing" so that the agent can assist a customer in filling out an online form. As the agent or the customer types in information into the fields, it is synchronized on the other person's screen. Hidden fields (such as for credit card, PINs, or social security numbers) can be used to ensure privacy and security for customers, since hidden fields are not transmitted.

We felt that the agent interface should show the state of both the voice and the data connection (connected/disconnected). Also, when the agent disconnects the data session, it would be nice if it automatically disconnected the voice portion of the PSTN call rather than having to hang up the phone manually. Giving agents the ability to perform a "trace" function for troubleshooting firewall issues on the customer-side might be beneficial.

Other features we found useful were the ability to select a highlighter tool to draw a red box around a particular area of a Web page, and a hand pointer tool was available, which allowed both the customer and agent to point to items on the screen.

We did, however, find a few usability suggestions: Since call center agents are very keyboard centric, we would like the ability to hit F5 to refresh the customer list rather than having to use the mouse to click on the refresh button. Also, after clicking on the chat button, the focus isn't on the Enter Message box. We had to click on the message box in order to type, which was a bit annoying.

We determined that there was a 300-400 millisecond delay using NetMeeting. While this is not terrible, we had much better performance when we tested using a newer beta of WebDialogs that works with the Net2Phone client. Using the Net2Phone client, the latency was much better than NetMeeting. As previously stated, if the VoIP call doesn't go through for whatever reason, the product should continue with just Web co-browsing, text chat and the collaboration features functioning.

All problems aside, we found the WebDialogs product was the most feature-rich of all the products in this test. TMC Labs was quite pleased with its co-browsing and other collaboration capabilities.

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It's difficult to pick an "overall" winner in this comparison, since any evaluation really depends on what a given customer values as the most important features. If low latency and excellent VoIP voice quality are more important to you, then eStara's SIP-based solution might be the way to go. However, HearMe and Lipstream were probably equal to eStara in latency and voice quality, but also featured VoIP conferencing and moderator features. HearMe and Lipstream additionally offered the shortest time to connect, and if abandoned shopping carts are your concern, the power of immediacy should not be underestimated, especially when dealing with newer online consumers, whose impatience may stem from an expectation of traditional telephone standards.

That said, if we had to be pinned down to pick an overall winner, we'd have to choose WebDialogs. We found that WebDialog's Web Interact Services distinguishes itself out of a sheer breadth of features. When we first tested WebDialogs, we did notice right away that it had the worst latency of the four products examined. We found that this was a limitation of NetMeeting, which typically adds 300-400 milliseconds of latency. When asked about this performance issue, WebDialogs mentioned that they support the Net2Phone client, which they claim has better VoIP quality, and much less latency than NetMeeting. We then tested WebDialogs with the Net2Phone client and determined it to be at least the same quality as the other three competing products.

HearMe and Lipstream have some powerful conferencing capabilities that WebDialogs and eStara, which were limited to a one-to-one VoIP conversation, did not have. HearMe was also the only product we tested that supported both H.323 and SIP, and additionally distinguished itself from the pack with its VoiceCONTACT feature. While Lipstream also lets you place a similar call button in your e-mail signature file, HearMe's VoiceCONTACT in unique in that it will tell people you write to whether or not you are at your desk through a dynamic HTML presence indicator.

There are several less obvious things to consider as well, such as back-end support and flexibility. In terms of the former, we know that WebDialogs is using Net2Phone's rather established and proven VoIP network, and that Lipstream is strongly positioning its own architecture, which includes a pending patent for their redundant server configuration and two hop proximity to the Internet backbone. As for flexibility, Lipstream's open architecture allows them to work with both e-commerce sites and "enablers" that serve them, such as Kana and eGain.

While interested readers, potential VoIP customers, and the vendors who participated in this comparison may be hoping for a single, conclusive finding, it is not the most useful application of this testing process. We are simply hoping our results will help you to narrow your focus and figure out which of the services these products provide that best suit your needs. Once you have done so, we highly recommend a couple of things. First, request that the companies you are considering allow you to try the products on a trial basis. Then do a little research (turning first, of course, to our sister publication Customer Interaction Solutions) into which features will address the need that originally led you to seek out a VoIP solution. If, for example, you're an e-commerce vendor serving more Web savvy consumers, WebDialogs could be your best bet. On the other hand, if you want to appeal to the widest audience, you may want to employ a product that launches quickly and delivers voice quality which is as close as possible to the telephones many consumers are used to, hence a HearMe or a Lipstream.

One final consideration is price. Some of these companies charge per-seat licensing, some do not, some charge by click-throughs, and others charge a monthly fee. Since each of the products offer a slightly different pricing model, what may be the most inexpensive for one potential buyer may not be for another buyer of these solutions. We should point out that we liked eStara's pricing model. Since they only charge you by the number of uses, this often will be the most cost effective solution.

In the end, the services and products made available by these companies enable e-businesses to a whole new level of integrated service to their customers. We are eager to see what continued development (and competition) these industry leaders will bring us down the line.

Shootout Comparison Chart

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Feature eStara HearMe LipStream WebDialogs
ASP-model VoIP button x x x x
Web call-back to customer thru PSTN   x    
PC-to-PC   x x  
PC-to-Phone x Coming Soon x x
Client standard SIP SIP or H.323 H.323 H.323, Net2Phone Clinet
Agent can push Web pages Predefined sites can be pushed via DTMF     x
Customer can push Web pages       x
Moderator features for conferences   x x  
Form sharing (agent and customer can fill out Web forms together)     x x
Text chat   x x x
Features eStara HearMe LipStream WebDialogs
File Transfer     x x
Handsfree x x Supported, but not by default x
Full-duplex operation x x x x
Average Time to connect to agent 10 seconds 5 seconds 4.5 seconds 10 seconds
Installation A A A A
Documentation A A A A
GUI N/A (simple pop-up screen) A- A A
VoIP Quality A (minimal latency, good quality) A (minimal latency, good quality) A (minimal latency, good quality) B+ (Netmeeting)
Features (overall) B+ A- A- A+
Pricing Priced on click-throughs. Call for pricing. $50 per seat per month @ 50 agents. One time $350 per seat fee $100-$200 per seat monthly depending on call volume and application, variable one time setup fee $995 for 2 concurrent sessions. $.10 per minute to non-800 numbers.
Overall Rating


A- A- A

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