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Publisher's Outlook
February 2004

Rich Tehrani

So Long SNET, Hello Gondor, And 3Com Makes A Return


I finally switched to Vonage. I get lots of IP telephony test accounts so I generally can call for free year-round if I like. The problem is that in order to keep my home phone number, I was maintaining my SBC SNET account. On my monthly bill (among the other ridiculous acts the RBOCs often engage in) they were still charging me $3.35/month for their wonderful �non-published� service. Basically this amounts to being charged for the luxury of not being listed in their directory assistance system. I first wrote about this inanity in June of 1998 in an article about Internet telephony in CTI Magazine. Thank you SNET... It has been a wonderful relationship, but I am moving to VoIP.

So much has happened in this space since 1998 -- the world has recently done a complete �180� on IP telephony. No one is happier than I am about the rapid adoption of this technology. I mark December of 2003 as the turning point for this market� the same time in which the general media couldn�t stop talking about this technology. Coincidentally this marks the three-year anniversary of the beginning of the CLEC crash of December 2000. As you may recall, many VoIP initiatives died with the CLECs, and so many good companies and technologies died along with them. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes companies like Vonage and 8x8 are now the new next-generation CLECs, and the enterprise market has finally decided that VoIP is next-gen telephony that you can use today while traditional non-packetized telecom has become legacy.

While the telecom market is always in some state of flux, some things never change. Ever notice that Windows is laden with dialog boxes? �Do you want to save this?� �Do you want to save that?� �There is a critical error here, there and everywhere.� There seems to be a corporate directive at Microsoft to place all critical error messages directly in the center of the monitor. Apparently Bill Gates has the programmers on such a short leash that there is not even a pixel of variance between these messages. Some of them aren�t even movable.

All of this makes it exceedingly pleasant to reboot your computer while trying to figure out how to close a dozen overlapping dialog boxes (OK, so I have lots of applications running at once). Thankfully, Microsoft is becoming a big player in IP telephony. I am looking forward to an automated VoIP application that calls and alerts you whenever you have hidden dialog boxes on your screen.

Let�s be fair here. Real Player and Adobe deserve equal �praise� for software that generates more messages than it should. It seems every time I open the Adobe Acrobat reader, it wants to check for updates. I have noticed some users click on Web links twice (not knowing they can click just once) and if you do this with an Acrobat document, you could wait forever to discover that you have a hidden dialog box asking you if you want to check for updates.

From hidden dialog boxes let�s move to hidden faxes or better yet, Spam fax hiding in your inbox. Fax, you say? Wasn�t fax eliminated by e-mail? Well, no. IP is doing for fax what it did for voice -- making it more efficient and more flexible. Besides, fax servers are now pretty well accepted and Internet fax is becoming as understood as Internet telephony.  Just as VoIP providers give you lots of extra services on the telephony side, so does Venali, an IP fax company that has something called the Fax Protector.

This product is a Spam fax filter that has been trained by being exposed to over three million spam faxes! So in addition to drastically more flexible faxing you get added benefits like much less spam in your fax inbox. How on earth have they been able to get access to this many spam faxes? Venali put its money where its incoming faxes were and offered $25 gift certificates in exchange for 80 spam faxes sent to the company. (And you thought there was no money in junk fax.) This Spam fax technology is available in Venali�s IP fax solutions at no extra charge and there is a version that seamlessly works with Office 2003. If you are interested in reselling Venali products and services or becoming a customer (they have a generous free trial program), check out www.venali.com.

The idea of eliminating Spam from fax is a truly noble and innovative idea. I am happy to report that innovation is once again returning to our market. For example, consider 3-D conference calling. IP telephony makes this concept a reality and it can be very useful. There is a company developing this sort of product right now and you don�t need special plastic glasses to use it, just an open mind, which helps you easily sense where different participants on a call are located. Better yet, you can assign overtones to voices on the call to make sure they are easier to distinguish. For example, on a conference call with a potential acquirer you could assign a similar overtone to all participants who are looking to acquire, while all of the members of your �team� are untouched. Overtones can be metallic or reverberating. This may seem like a minor feature but it marks a turning point in communications. New companies are beginning to take advantage of what IP telephony has to offer and in doing so, give us truly new and innovative products.
This technology is brought to you in the form of a product called Palantir, and it is produced by a company called DiamondWare. And for those fellow nerds out there, yes, you need stereo headphones to make this work and yes, Palantir is one of a few product names you will likely recognize from Lord of the Rings.

I am really excited about what DiamondWare is doing because they are designing something really different in telephony. We have been talking about applications in the telecom market for years, yet there are few new ones out there. Finally here is a company that has innovative new products. I hope they set a trend and get the big boys to start thinking outside of the legacy PSTN box!

Palantir is really a SOHO IP PBX which you can connect to an ITSP (Internet telephony service provider) to have your calls terminated for a fraction of what a typical service provider would charge. With this system, all users are logged into the server and are able to communicate with any number of groups of people. The system is casual in its use, allowing users to benefit from the rapid nature of IM with do not disturb features as well as the ability to quickly escalate a chat conversation to a multi-participant voice conference if needed. The system has big corporate features built into it like support for 10 people on a conference call as well as the ability to change the voice volume of individual participants. It also allows people to be logged into a multiple conference groups allowing more flexibility in how work is conducted.

Getting back to voice colorizing, you can also change an outgoing man�s voice to a woman�s when making a call, which -- believe it or not -- actually does have some legal uses, for example when selling to an audience of a certain sex, you may determine that the opposite sex is more successful at closing (I�ll never view telemarketers the same way again). You can also disguise your voice and yet again I offer a real application beyond playing tricks on friends and relatives -- allowing supervisors to call in to test agents without being recognized.

Other than the software license cost and the price of a relatively slow computer or laptop to act as a server, there is no recurring fee like you would experience with a conferencing service. Pricing is incredible at $199 for five users. You supply the hardware: a 1 GHz Pentium III can support up to 60 users!

An optional module for Palantir is Gondor, which allows tremendous flexibility for users of mobile radios. By integrating two radios with Palantir�s intercom and conferencing system, you can allow any user on the system to communicate on any one or multiple radios. The system can bridge multiple radios (a useful feature for disaster situations) as well as bridge radios and phones allowing a central operations center to monitor and constantly communicate with a variety of these radios. This system was designed with the military in mind and as such has encryption built in. Currently it works with radios from Harris and Raytheon. These products will be available soon. If you are looking to resell or purchase, please visit DiamondWare online for details.

3Com Rides Again
The small IP PBX market was started by companies like Selsius (now part of Cisco) and NBX (now part of 3Com). It is interesting to see 3Com now making a push to once again dominate the corporate IP telephony space. I recently had a chance to meet with management and was very impressed by their knowledge and ideas about the future of 3Com.

A new product dubbed the VCX takes the best features of the NBX (their small to medium enterprise solution) as well as the VCX (the service provider product of their Commworks division, which has since been sold off). So essentially, the VCX is an enterprise solution with much of the functionality and feature-set of a carrier class system. This is the sort of marriage that gives you the ability to administer multiple NBX systems from a single interface. This is done while giving a full enterprise feature set and the ability to scale.

3Com has been working with Citel for many years to provide gateways that allow legacy phones to coexist with IP telephony systems eliminating the need for forklift upgrades. There are some great enterprise features built into this system allowing for features such as redundancy and the back up of critical voice mail files at night when bandwidth is available. Finally, you have the potential to have full VCX functionality in branch offices at a reasonable price.

If 3Com plays its cards right they will find themselves at the head of the IP telephony pack with Cisco. That is the goal of the company. But this will not be an easy thing to do with Avaya and Nortel standing in the way. 3Com has gone through some interesting times but their message seems like a good one and if they can execute, we can expect to see big things from them in 2004.

This is the most exciting time we have ever witnessed in IP telephony because innovation is coming back in a big way and there are lots of good choices out there for enterprises looking for VoIP solutions. IP has truly opened up telephony in a way that we have never experienced before. Developers can roll out intriguing new applications on shoestring budgets. These new features and functions will then be embedded in most systems giving all users access to features and functions that will make us more productive and save companies money!

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