A new press release from the Yankee Group reports that, as the big carriers (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner) move into the residential VoIP/IP Telephony market, they will displace the smaller pioneers, like Vonage, that paved the way. The “residential” market, however, is no longer only about “consumer” usage, as more and more SOHOs and enterprise telecommuters exploit broadband for desktop business communications at home. But any kind of end user won’t care about VoIP infrastructure, only features, interface ease of use, and, if they have to pay for it, costs.
As analysts in the “converged communications” industry, we have been talking for years about how person-to-person business communications will be improved by virtue of unifying and integrating telephone communications with all modalities of messaging. The initial implementation obstacle has been the network and server infrastructure technology that made such integration both difficult and expensive. With the arrival of IP networking, Voice over IP, and IP Telephony application servers, multi-modal convergence at the desktop level now becomes both practical and inexpensive. But now the telecommunications industry has to face up to a “graceful migration” of new communication capabilities at the end user level.
Migrating the Users
Step one, in our book, has to avoid unnecessary disruption of how users already communicate, both as contact initiators (callers) and as (call) recipients. This also means preserving our current investments in existing devices, information, and procedures, better known as “backward compatibility.” As we both confirmed very quickly, user acceptance will be dependent upon more than just lower costs and future new services. (This caveat will apply to end users everywhere, including within enterprise environments, where enterprise technology management is the “service provider” to the organization.)
After typical migration Step 1 for IP Telephony, which will move the user’s telephone service to the flexibility and lower costs of VoIP, there will be other incremental migration steps that will integrate that service with all flavors of real-time conferencing and messaging functionality, as well as new, multi-modal communication devices. (In our recent enterprise report on migration, the IP-PBX implementation was the first migration step for most organizations and did not necessarily include replacing any user station sets with IP phones.)
Art’s Tale of Step 1 -- Starting the Migration With a Little VoIP
In my case, as an AT&T subscriber, I felt it my duty to migrate my local and long distance phone service to CallVantage, their VoIP-based service. (I was somewhat influenced by the ominous announcement by AT&T that it was no longer pursuing the traditional residence/consumer market.) The initial payoff for me would be a lower monthly cost, but ultimately new features and functions would come into play. The procedure looked simple enough and so I signed up.
After receiving delivery of their telephone adaptor, I connected it to my DSL line and to my computer and attempted to go on line to activate the service. When that didn’t work, I contacted customer service about the problem and they informed me that my account had been terminated, but couldn’t tell me why. I returned the telephone adaptor until further notice.
After a couple of weeks, I contacted AT&T to try again. Apparently my problem was caused by a data entry error at AT&T that indicated that I was trying to use the same phone line for both my Verizon-based DSL service and for the CallVantage service. Since that is a “no-no,” they simply canceled the service automatically without letting me know. At first, they suggested that I get a new CallVantage phone number for outbound calls. When I told them that I was actually using a separate line and number for my DSL connection, they agreed to start over again and send me another telephone adaptor.
This time, I had everything properly connected, but could not get my PC to access the Internet to activate my account. I spent hours with CallVantage techs, mostly around midnight when I could get through to them. No matter what we tried, Internet access from my PC never happened while connected through their telephone adaptor and so I could not activate CallVantage service. After a couple of days, I decided to give up and keep my regular AT&T service, but was told that would take two weeks!
In the meantime, my old number had been still working as usual. But the very next day a colleague called my home number to inform me that incoming callers were now being given a “disconnected number” message. The following day, I no longer had dial tone for outbound calls on that line.
I called AT&T’s customer service and they said they could put a temporary forwarding service on the CallVantage number to ring my home phone number, until my service was switched back. The way that worked was an incoming call to the CallVantage number would ring the home number, announce that “AT&T was calling,” and ask that I press “one” to take the call. If I was not around to pick up the phone, the call would be diverted to a CallVantage voice mailbox. The catch here was that, since I had not activated the CallVantage service, I could not get access to that voice mailbox!
With a little help from the AT&T techs, I was given a sneaky way to get access to CallVantage voicemail and pick up my voice messages online through my PC. After two weeks, my business line was finally back to normal again, but they never did figure out why I couldn’t activate their service.
Blair’s Tale of Step 2 – Trying Out Unified Communications
As someone who’s been following the unified messaging/unified communications (UM/UC) market since its inception, I was thrilled when my local carrier, SBC, began to offer a UC service in my area. Since, I am already an SBC Message Center customer for my voice mail service, and the UC service costs only about a dollar more, I figured it was a no-brainer to switch over to their new offering.
The SBC Unified Communications Lite service offers traditional unified messaging capabilities – letting you view and listen to all of your messages online, listen to all your messages over the phone, receive fax messages in your mailbox, and customize personal mailbox settings and message notification options online. SBC Unified Communications also adds integration with Cingular Wireless, but I’m not a Cingular Wireless user, so I had to go with Unified Communications Lite. One of the main benefits of using a UC system from your local carrier is that you get to keep your phone number. Most UM/UC services from other service providers give you a new local or 800 number, which people need to learn in order to reach you or leave a message.
I had no problems ordering the service – but the customer service rep forgot to give me the access number that I need to call in order to get my messages over the phone or tell me that I would receive the access number in a welcome letter.
Their Telephone Interface
After contacting SBC to find out that the service was up and running, I went to the SBC UC website to set up my Mailbox preferences and settings. Using their Telephone User Interface (TUI), I created my new voice mail greeting, and immediately made a phone call to myself to see if the message-waiting indicator worked – and it did!
The red light on my phone lit up when there was a message (this doesn’t happen with all voice mail services, so this is a good thing). But after I listened to the message, I was in for a disappointment. The system default is set up to play messages one at a time, including the date and time the message was sent, as well as the available recorded name and telephone numbers of the callers if they are also SBC Unified Communications users. Alternatively, the system announces the phone number from which the message was received – veeeerrrrryyyy slowly! (There is an option to not have the header information read, but it wasn’t obvious how to do this).
But here’s where SBC lost me -- after listening to the message, I heard dead air. Nothing, nada! Where was the prompt telling me what button to press to delete, repeat, or save the message? No prompts, no instructions – just dead air. I hung up and tried again. The same thing happened – there were no prompts telling me, what to do!
Since I was already familiar with the SBC voice mail user interface, I tried using the same commands – 3 to delete, 2 to save, 1 to replay the message. Fortunately, this worked. I pressed 3 to delete the message, but instead of hearing the nice voice saying “message deleted,” all I heard was “leted,” which I assumed meant that the message was deleted.
Fortunately, SBC set up a special customer support line for its UC customers, with agents who were trained in using the system. However, I found out about this UC support number only after speaking with several SBC reps who knew nothing about the UC offering. I asked the SBC UC agent about the dead air and lack of prompts, and after initial disbelief, she tried it out for herself. She told me that it seemed as if the system was set up in such a way that you have to exit message review and re-enter the system in order to hear the prompts. Very strange. (Side note: I later spoke to an SBC spokesperson who told me that no one else has had this problem and they weren’t sure what caused it.)
The Desktop Interface
Since the SBC UC inbox becomes my new graphical user interface and replaces my existing Outlook inbox for all messages, one of the first things I tried to do was set up my address book to send out emails without having to type in the recipient’s email address each time. I went to my SBC UC mailbox on the web but was unable to find the instructions for importing addresses from Outlook, a PDA, or any other source. I called SBC and found out that there is indeed no way to import addresses or synchronize with an existing address book, and that I was expected to manually enter whatever addresses I wanted to use. Manually entering my over 1,000 business names, phone numbers, email addresses, and mailing addresses for everyone would be an impossible job.
The Good and the Bad
To be fair, the SBC service has some good points. The fax feature worked well, and I like being able to receive and view faxes in my inbox, rather than wasting my fax machine’s paper and ink, especially for junk faxes. As mentioned, the message waiting indicator worked well, which is very important. The synchronization between the telephone and web-based inbox also worked very well. When I deleted a voice message in my inbox via the telephone, it was immediately deleted from my web browser-based unified inbox. This is another important feature that SBC got right.
The service has some pretty slick features, such as Fast Login and PIN Skip shortcuts, so that you don’t have to enter your password when calling the system from the phone number that the service is attached to.
On the down side, SBC UC is not integrated with Outlook, and uses its own mailbox for unified storage. This means learning a whole new user interface in order to use the SBC UC mailbox, and one that is not as fully featured as Outlook (and I’m the last person to be praising a Microsoft product!)
So after only about a day and a half of SBC UC Lite, I cancelled the service and went back to my plain old SBC voice mail service. As a strong proponent of unified communications, I’ll most likely revisit the SBC UC service in a few months and see if it is any better. I’m currently trying out another UM/UC service from an independent vendor, but since it’s not from my local carrier, it requires using a new local phone number. I’ll let you know if it’s worth making up new business cards.
Blair’s Top Ten UM/UC Wish List for Her Step 2
- Keep my existing phone number.
- Integration with Outlook: I would like to continue to use my Outlook inbox, calendar, and address book and don’t want to deal with an entirely new interface. I want to be able to receive notification of new voice messages in my Outlook inbox, and click on the attached .wav file to hear the message.
- Live Reply or Call Return: After playing a voice message over the phone, I want to be able to easily initiate a return call to the person who left the message via a simple command. I hate having to listen to a message, write down the phone number, and then place a return call – especially if I’m driving! (Comment: That applies to listening to text messages too, using the power of a converged, multi-modal address book.)
- True cross-modal capabilities: I like being able to receive voice messages in my email inbox, but I want to choose how I respond to the message – whether I send an email or respond via a phone call. The same is true for when I’m on my cell phone.
- Call Management capabilities: I love the systems that screen incoming calls by asking the caller to say their name and announce the caller to the recipient for a decision on how to handle the call (accept the call, send it to voice mail, etc.)
- Find me/follow me: Personally, I believe this is the best reason to use a UC system or service. If I don’t answer my office phone, the system can try my cell phone and try to locate me.
- Speech recognition and Personal Assistant capabilities: I spend a lot time driving and would prefer not to put my life at risk by fumbling around with the tiny keypad on my cell phone when I make a call or receive a message.
- Integration with both my home office phone and my cell phone. In most cases, there are still at least two voice mail systems to check for messages. SBC Unified Communications attempts to overcome this problem for Cingular Wireless customers.
- Intuitive GUI – keep it simple, yet powerful.
- Low cost! I only want to pay a few dollars per month more for UM/UC than I currently pay for my voice mail service.
Communications convergence, VoIP and wireless mobility will impact all users wherever they are located, and will make the designation “residence” user useless. We will have consumers and business users, where the latter, by definition, are also consumers as well. Converged communications devices and service interfaces will therefore have to interoperate across both types of usage, as well as across all modalities of person-to-person contact. And we haven’t even touched upon the impact of presence management and wireless technologies!
The bottom line is that “telephone” services are no longer going to be so simple, and end users will be making more mistakes than with traditional telephony. The experiences we have had so far with the service providers merely confirms that no one is finished doing the interface packaging job yet and this will impede the mass adoption of the new technologies in both the enterprise and consumer markets.
What Do You Think?
Do you think that converged communications services are ready for consumers? Are they ready for business users? Do we need to have new, multi-modal telephone sets to effectively exploit the convergence of IP Telephony with messaging or will the PC/laptop be adequate? Will reducing telephone costs be enough of an incentive to migrate consumers to IP Telephony services?
Let us know your opinions by sending them to [email protected]
New White Paper Report: Progress and Direction of Enterprise Migration to Converged Communications
The Unified-View has just completed a new white paper report on the state of the industry and the enterprise market for communications convergence. Entitled “Beyond VoIP: Enterprise Perspectives on Migrating to Multi-modal Communications and Wireless Mobility,” the report was sponsored by the non-profit Unified Communications Consortium and leading providers of enterprise voice telecommunications technologies, including Alcatel, Avaya, Mitel, Nortel Networks, and Siemens.
This objective report summarizes the current availability of key converged voice application technology from the provider industry, as well as a realistic assessment of the progress that enterprise organizations are making in migrating to communications convergence. The latter information is based on recent market studies of enterprise organizations from a converged usage perspective. The study provides practical feedback on the readiness of the market for the new IP-based voice technologies.
For a free copy of the new report, go to www.unified-view.com
Copyright © 2004 Unified-View, All Rights Reserved Worldwide
Art Rosenberg is a veteran of the computer and communications industry and formed The Unified-View to provide strategic consulting to technology and service providers, as well as to enterprise organizations, in migrating towards converged wired and wireless unified communications. He focuses on practical user requirements, implementation issues, and new benefits of multi-modal communication technologies for individual end users, both as a consumer and as a member of enterprise working groups. The latter includes identifying new responsibilities for enterprise communications management to support changing operational usage needs most cost-effectively.
Copyright � 2004 The
Unified-View, All Rights Reserved Worldwide