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Product Reviews
 September 2001



VocalScape Communications, Inc.
#203 -- 3991 Henning Drive
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Phone: 604-437-VOIP (8647)
Fax: 604-437-8646

Price: EyeFon: $10,000 + $0.50 per download, or $98,000 flat fee. VocalConnect SOHO: $120.00 per month for up to three operators. 
VocalConnect Advantage:
$250.00 per month with up to ten operators. VocalConnect Service Provider: $107,000 Software; $18,000-$480,000 Hardware; $6,000-19,000 yearly maintenance and upgrade contract.

Editor's Choice Award

Installation: 5
Documentation: 4
Features: 4
GUI: 5
Overall: A

Are you tired of the "same ol', same ol'?" Well, we went up to Burnaby, British Columbia in June to visit with Erik Lagerway, President and CTO of Vocalscape, and his highly praised, two-year old, close-knit software team to get a first-hand look at their product-line and to play with their system. (To give you a sense of Erik's dedication to his craft, take note that his license plate reads "VoIP.") Much time was also spent visiting with Robin Raymond, Software Department Manager. He has been successfully coordinating the coding activities for the company. They have some great products, the flagship being VocalConnect that we will deal with here in this review.

The interface Vocalscape created to be used by clients is EyeFon. It works today on PC platforms, but will be operational on Unix and Macintosh platforms at a later date. The client side for EyeFon is quite easy. You go to their Web site or to one of their customers that is using this technology and click on the "Phone button" at the bottom right of the screen. Then respond to the pop-up screen. If you are using anti-pop-up software, this isn't going to work, so disable it to enjoy this experience.

The three sliders are the mic and speaker volume controls as well as the delay modulation control. It also has the DTMF keypad mapped to the keyboard. There is a transmit silence toggle, a hang-up and redial button, a quick link bar, and the status message window.

The fun part about this product is that the completely customizable "skin" can match your business colors and logos, etc. to make your prospective customers' Web site experience somewhat unique. It takes less than five minutes to download the client app depending of course, on your bandwidth capacity and the robustness of the connection. We're not just talking QoL, but also access.

The next part is the VocalConnect Suite. The VocalConnect eCustomer Interaction Suite is a service that transforms a Web site into a live communications center for business and customer interaction. We were told that about 6,000 companies are currently using this Linux-based application. Prospective customers can receive real-time, one-on-one personal service in a simple, scalable, and cost-effective service that can add a personal touch to any e-Business by providing contact with a real live person behind the Web site transaction process.

There are three flavors of the VocalConnect software suite:

VocalConnect SOHO: This model allows businesses that could not previously afford eCRM or CIM software or service with an instant solution.

VocalConnect Advantage: Better suited for the small- to medium-size business, this version comes with 10 operator licenses and wireless support for the callback feature.

VocalConnect Service Provider: A completely turnkey replica of the entire VocalConnect software suite, "white labeled" in the client's name. The package includes training, hardware, and fully deployed server software on-site. That explains the wide range in the pricing noted at the beginning of the review. You take a big hit if you are starting from scratch. If you already have a lot of the equipment, then obviously, the cost goes down accordingly. This is the version we reviewed. 

VocalConnect also uses EyeFon as part of its offering, however, it also expands Web-based customer interaction beyond simple e-mail correspondence. With just one click, Web visitors and customers are now able to receive immediate, interactive, live, personal assistance through Web-based chat, Web page collaboration, scheduled callback, and live VoIP telephone conversations. 

The intent here is that behind every Web site there now can be a live human to respond to transactions and lead customers to a friendly finalization for buying products instead of abandoning the shopping cart in mid-negotiations. The live agent can handle up to four conversations simultaneously.

A small spiral bound cardstock booklet that is a quick read is the documentation we received. Inside, there are several color-coded Quick Reference posters and cards that lead you through the various screen options for VocalConnect. The "QuickRef&FAQs" Poster does a flowchart "follow-me" format from Agent Log In to Zone Administration. In the "QuickCards&FAQs," the sleeve contains four double-sided cards walking you through "Corporate Administration." The second sleeve has two double-sided cards on "Agent Interface," "Commands," and "Call Back." It also shows how to get up-and-running in five days, and ends with a one-page glossary and a few terms.

This proprietary Java-based Web-to-phone software (Version 2) can be deployed on virtually any portal or commercial Web site in order to provide a PC-to-phone or PC-to-PC telephony service (if you are using the MS Windows environment today). The application is Web-based, meaning that the software is easily downloaded and installed dynamically from the portal. VocalScape's client software is built on open-standards using Java, the H.323 protocol, and the G.723.1 codec, and has been successfully tested with a number of vendors and IP telephony networks. The SIP version will be available this fall.

To properly host VocalConnect, assuming you wish to go this route yourself, a minimum of five Linux-based servers are required for standalone functionality. Those would be: Two Web servers running Apache (the most used server software in the world -- because it is so reliable, and free -- see apache.org) and PHP extensions (HTML embedded cross-platform scripting language, also free -- see php.net), one PostGreSQL server (an open-source database package that competes nicely with commercial object-relational database management system packages, also free -- see postgresql.org) and two mail/DNS servers. (Oh, and for the PostFix app, check out postfix.org. Okay, guess its price. Yep, nada.)

This configuration allows VocalScape to avoid many licensing issues and helps to reduce the cost of this solution considerably. Something everyone would agree is very much appreciated in these recessionary times. So what are you really paying for? That depends on which option you choose and how much handholding is required. Essentially you are paying for an application that provides closure for transactions on-line. What is that worth to you? If it's worth something, then you can sign right up.

From there, as an assigned Administrator you can log in to a SSL Encrypted 128 bit secure area. Then you can navigate using the JavaScript rollover images that allow for easy navigation on that site, do all kinds of special customization adjustments, and the like. That is also where you do the skin changes for that unique "your company" look.

Using this in-house in Burnaby, BC was a piece of cake, but trying to do this remotely was a bit more challenging. During the test period Murphy's Law was in full effect. The EyeFon interface didn't work with the "platform of choice" (an iMac) in Washington State. And yes, that unit did have Virtual PC activated at the time (Virtual PC allows any Macintosh system to use any PC-based program). The issue was that the EyeFon interface on their Web site would start, but then go offline. This was a C++ coding challenge. Apparently the audio portion involved some really small percentage of proprietary coding wrapped in Microsoft mystique that is PC-centric; just enough to get the "offline" message. Once they go 100 percent Java, this shouldn't be an issue. And platform incompatibility will become a thing of the past.

Ironically, the day we were at VocalScape's offices, a group of crackers infiltrated the only remaining IIS server, which didn't help matters either. (The FBI in Washington, D.C. contacted them within 2 minutes of the "hack," and asked them to fix the situation. Impressive!) Yet another reason for Vocalscape to move rapidly away from "commercial" proprietary products and towards Open Source software services.

So we switched coasts and tried this from our Labs in Norwalk, CT. However, we also had some difficulty with the phone lines at our base of operations in Connecticut. The unique excuse this time was downtime caused by "humid squirrels." This turned out to be less than a humorous joke with the local telco provider -- it really is the explanation they gave! Vocalscape had difficulties with the PRI system (xDSL) in Vancouver, BC. They did manage to get fiber into their office space earlier, but it was being used for their production environment. Complete conversion to it would take a little while. You just can't get there (BC) from here (CT) if no "here" is here or "there" is there, and the lines are inoperable.

Then, because of our own VPN setup, we had to find out which ports could be activated to get past our firewall configuration so EyeFon would work as advertised. See http://www.vocalconnect.com/tech_firewall.vox?m=c
for some enlightenment. Only that wasn't "good enough," because...

...It seems our existing office firewall system doesn't care much for H.323-based systems and so, we are anxiously awaiting the Vocalscape SIP solution in the fall. The current configuration for the full localized application requires a firewall that is PIX-compliant. In other words, it has to be a Cisco router/firewall or it's not going to work! And no, we aren't currently using one of those. The SIP solution doesn't really care what platform you are using. Wait a month or two and the PIX requirement won't be necessary anymore. (By the way, a general comment, if you are surfing without any kind of firewall, you are not safely surfing -- so just do it. You've been warned. Besides, some firewall solutions are free, so you have no excuse, unless you're excited by the prospect of being in the running for a "Darwin Award" for networking.)

Downloading the EyeFon app may take a while (roughly) five minutes and it may not load inside the IE browser window, so the folks at VocalScape developed their own download system to bypass that issue. And it downloads much faster to the client. Curiously, the Chat (text-based) function has no problem whatsoever under any circumstances with any browser or platform.

We finally got EyeFon to go beyond "offline." We used a portable computer with a dialup connection to bypass our firewall. Once the MSIE (Microsoft Internet Explorer) browser also behaved (and yes, it was having a tantrum), we were able to talk intelligently/intelligibly over the �Net. At the time of this activity, the telco in BC was still only able to permit access to 800 numbers in Canada and within the 604 area code. We didn't ask, but we are making the assumption that the other 6,000 firms using this system didn't have this experience, because they are mainly in standalone production environments.

The successful PC configuration on this end was an Andrea anti-noise ANC-600 headset using a Gateway2000 SOLO portable (around 200 MHz processor) and a 33.6Kbps TelePath (US Robotics/Megahertz PCMCIA modem card, bypassing our firewall. What is so magical about this is that it worked so well and much better than cellular or those portable house phones or "other" Internet Phone on-line solutions -- no noticeable cutouts. Volume tolerable. Newer gear will only enhance the experience. If it works here in this "worst-case" situation (meaning using a 33.6 Kbps modem), it obviously would work on just about anything else that is used in the PC environment today and on other platforms tomorrow.

VocalScape has got to get this into a truly cross-platform mode (meaning the package can be capable of working under Unix, Windows, or the Apple OSs) first. That means 100 percent Java throughout. Then there is the SIP thing. And it sure would be nice if the commands and interfaces were voice-activated, so maybe some VoiceXML can be added to spice it up. We'll give them a "high five" in the Features category once they get the challenges they can control resolved.

This is one of those applications that puts Linux firmly in the enterprise, and weans us away from the current legacy-system PC situation. Those who use the product can have a lot of fun using this application by "fast-tracking" e-mail using the chat interface or by using the toll-free EyeFon capability. Once it becomes a "universal" application, this will be even more in line with the "gotta-have" off-the-shelf packages. Just remember that as in any curse or blessing, you get what you pay for, and this product is worth paying for.

[ Return To The September 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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