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Publisher's Outlook
August 2003

Rich Tehrani

The Unbearable Excitement Of Conferencing


Many people think conferencing is boring. I generally tend to agree. Of course there are still a number of companies generating some excitement in this space and thus are worth highlighting. One such company, Voyant won a TMC Labs Innovation Award last month. The two other companies I recently spoke to are Sonexis and Konftel.

Sonexis is a company looking to displace conferencing service providers, using their hardware, in an attempt to get a share of this three billion dollar market. According to the company, they can cut the cost of conferencing down to one-tenth of one cent per minute! By leasing their equipment using the operations budget a company can immediately start saving precious dollars. The company executives believe that the conferencing market will shift from hosted to premise based. This is certainly a possibility, but if service providers lower their conferencing prices, then the justification for bringing conferencing in-house decreases. Just a thought.

The conferencing interface from a user perspective is identical to most conferencing services, allowing callers to call in to join a call. The conference host is able to see a roster of attendees and if desired, private conversations can be had between parties. Documents can be shared over the Web during a call. In order to accommodate users who may be mobile, the host may select that a person on the conference call be given audio or Web access, or both.

Sonexis tells me that many companies aren�t even aware of the amount of conferencing taking place in their organizations. When you start to add up the costs of various services used by various departments such as sales, marketing, investor relations, it becomes clear in some companies that bringing conferencing in-house can lower costs.

Sonexis is not developing huge systems like some of the other players in this space. Instead, their systems can handle 120 VoIP sessions or 96 TDM sessions. These numbers are expected to double by the end of the year though. The systems are fairly simple to administer and can be used in multiple regions to lower long-distance costs if desired.

Other features include the ability to join a conference by clicking on a link in an e-mail. You can also connect with Outlook calendaring. A version allowing seamless IM connectivity is coming soon as well. Please note that this conferencing solution does allow IM between conference participants.

There is the added ability to store a conference and play it later. This is very convenient for training and regulatory issues and of course if your intended audience wasn�t available to hear the conference live.

The reasons to bring conferencing in-house are many-fold. You get more control and if you already spend $1,000 per month or more on conferencing, this solution makes sense for you, as $1,000/month is the entry leasing cost. There may also be the opportunity to use conferencing more than you do now if there is no per-minute cost, which could end up making your company more productive. Finally, there is the security aspect. Many conference calls are confidential and using a service provider to host these calls is typically secure but reducing the possibility of unauthorized eavesdroppers is always a good thing. If you are looking to buy or resell this type of product please call Sonexis at (978) 640-2000 or visit www.sonexis.com.

From network conference calling where users aren�t physically located in the same room, I take you to the realm of desktop or conference room conferencing, which we will refer to for the sake of clarity as conferencing devices. This is potentially the most boring area of conferencing, as Polycom owns this market with 93 percent of global market share and 95 percent of U.S. market share! Even Microsoft has less market share than Polycom. My hat is off to them.

If Sweden-based Konftel has its way however, they will all change how we think of conferencing devices. Already, they tell me that their market share is up to 15 percent in Europe, which is respectable. They tell me that their sound quality is superior to Polycom as they use a single omni-directional microphone at the top of the conferencing unit as opposed to three. This allows the speaker to be heard clearly regardless of their location in the room and even as they move around.

I asked why someone would purchase Konftel products instead of Polycom and was told by the company that the quality is superior and they price their units one-third to one-half off the equivalent Polycom device. Obviously this is a compelling amount of money to be saving. Another market they are excelling in is the replacement of audio units in videoconferencing systems.

The Konftel 50 is the entry-level unit and it can connect to any phone including cell phones and IP telephony connections. There are options such as various connectors, a wall mounting bracket and aluminum travel case.

The Konftel 100 is for smaller conference rooms and features a 12-digit keypad with redial, button for multi-party calls, volume control and mute.

The Konftel 200 is designed for larger conference rooms and allows extension microphones to be added for a minimum of 700 feet of coverage. The price for this device without add-ons is $499. The 200NI can plug into an ISDN line and is targeted at environments such as the government that has large numbers of ISDN lines in use.

Also on tap is the Konftel 25, which will be released soon. This is an ultra portable battery-operated device that can easily connect to a cell phone, for true ad-hoc conferencing from even the most remote locations.

People like to vote for the underdog and if there is an underdog in the conferencing device market you can be sure it is Konftel. In my meetings with corporate executives I was impressed with what I heard. I haven�t tested their devices yet but plan to in the future. One area of improvement is the Web site, which needs to have better English support if they want to be taken seriously in the U.S. I did mention this to the company and they are aware of this limitation and have promised to address it. However, this is a minor quibble, and if the sound quality is as good as they say they should do well in the U.S.

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