The VoIP (define - news - alerts) market has seen numerous shifts over the past several years. From enterprise solutions to a strong service provider focus, and back to enterprise, the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. These days, arguably the hottest target market for VoIP services is the small to medium-sized business (SMB).
A dizzying array of solutions is increasingly available to the SMB market, and while choice is a wonderful thing, how are businesses to discern which solution is right for them? The average SMB does not have an IT department with an unlimited budget and the time to dedicate to testing and evaluating and navigating the vast number of choices of phone systems available to them. Therefore, SMBs are looking for solutions that are neither complex nor time-consuming to install and operate.
Further muddying the landscape for SMB decision makers is the dreaded build versus buy question. Do I go with a hosted VoIP provider or do I purchase the equipment and deploy it in-house? There are a number of factors that go into this decision, but in the end, it's less a debate about technology and more a question of what SMBs feel more comfortable with and frankly how each type of solution addresses the specific needs of the business.
And let's not forget the issue of price. Total cost of ownership (TCO) and the return on investment (ROI) remain key considerations for the SMB owner.
For the sake of this article, let us assume however that the business has the resources to deploy and manage an IP telephony solution in-house.
First off, the SMB owner is looking for a phone system that will deliver quality voice at a reasonable price point. It's often been said however, that while price may be one of the leading factors driving SMBs to consider VoIP, it is the promise of enhanced features and functionality that really drives home the benefits of deploying this type of phone system.
These benefits can include bundled applications such as unified communications and integrated conferencing and collaboration capabilities, as well as applications such as Web-based system management, which are designed to simplify moves, adds, and changes.
Today, people use multiple devices to communicate (cell phones, softphones, Blackberries/PDAs, PCs, etc.) be it via voice or some other form of communications such as Instant messaging/chat, or even ad hoc video conferencing.
The long-sought promise of unified communications brings together these various modes of communicating, providing access to messages of all types (e-mail, voice, fax, IM, etc.) via a single message store, available to the user regardless of which device they prefer to use. Thus, one can check e-mails via the phone, listen to voice mails played back as .wav files via an e-mail client, send and receive faxes through a PC interface, and so on.
Unified communications also offers the key advantage of being able to tie together the aforementioned communications modes with various business processes using IP. Now you can combine enterprise applications with your communications infrastructure, thus enabling your employees to be more productive and more efficient as they go about their daily business regardless of location and what device they're using.
Another application is conferencing/collaboration. This application enables SMBs to save money on business travel and adds new levels of interaction and collaborative abilities for communicating with colleagues and clients alike, without the need to be there in person.
Today's conferencing/collaboration tools enable workers in one location to work on projects with remote workers. This removes geographic barriers to hiring and housing employees. Collaboration software, tied to your communications system, enables ad hoc conferencing for real-time collaboration between far flung colleagues, affording them the same access to opinions and advice from a coworker as employees who share the same location take for granted. Lastly, these solutions increase the efficiency and effectiveness of communications across the business.
When it comes to deployment, today's IP phone systems also need to integrate with the existing networking infrastructure. Pre-deployment analysis will dictate what level of network upgrade is necessary, and certainly the cost of bringing your LAN up to speed to handle voice is something to contend with. Other considerations include system redundancy and survivability, security, remote office connectivity, and mobility.
Perhaps most importantly, SMB decision makers need to consider from whom they're purchasing their solutions. For all the talk of products and features and benefits, the level of support and the level of comfort with the reseller bidding for the business is often the deal maker. When the issue is something as important as replacing a company's phone system, there is simply no substitute for a good reseller or systems integrator, with a good service and support record, who just happens to sell good products from a reputable vendor. After all, at the end of the day, communications is all about people. IT
Greg Galitzine is the editorial director of Internet Telephony magazine.