Business VoIP

Business phonesetI’ve been thinking about getting a VoIP phone in my home office. I’ve been using only a cellphone to conduct business for fifteen years, but there are times when it would be very handy to have a good speaker phone and to also enjoy some of the other features that come with business phones these days. So I’ve been shopping around and I quickly noticed that VoIP vendors have introduced some interesting innovations to their VoIP platforms in just the last few years and they are trying hard to be a better alternative to local phone service.

Since most of my clients offer business landlines I thought it would be interesting to describe what I found in the marketplace. I think it’s important to keep up with what your competition is doing, and VoIP business service is definitely becoming a serious competitor to anybody selling phone lines to businesses. Here is what I found about today’s VoIP market:

Price. Business VoIP keeps getting less expensive. Just a few years ago the VoIP prices were universally around $40 per line. Both Fonality and RingCentral now have lines starting at $19.99 including unlimited long distance and basic business features. Packages climb in price to $40 to include such things as video conferencing. Every online vendor has a different set of features at various price levels making it difficult to do a side-by-side comparison. But the bottom line is that basic VoIP business lines have come down in price.

Integration with Apps. Probably the coolest new feature with some VoIP services is full integration with common business software. For example, you can get full integration with helpdesk software like Salesforce’s Desk or with Zendesk. Or you can tie into collaboration software like Google Drive or Dropbox for business. A number of phone vendors are integrated into Salesforce, the industry-leading sales tool. And some platforms claim to integrate easily with most android apps.

These are powerful tools that are not bundled with switch-based telephone systems. Buying a phone line that is already fully integrated with Salesforce or Google Drive can be a big enticement to users who want to solve multiple issues with one purchase.

Advanced Business Services. VoIP business vendors have made big strides with their suite of advanced business features, Earlier generations of VoIP business lines were mostly a replacement for single line business phones, but they now offer features that rival the best functions of IP Centrex and other switch-based solutions.

And many VoIP platforms now integrate video conferencing for up to 50 simultaneous users, something that is not part of most Centrex or PBX feature sets.

Mobility. It doesn’t look like the VoIP providers have yet solved the mobility issue, but it’s obvious that they are working on it. Most of them still use call-forwarding to allow calls to be sent to cell phones, but I couldn’t find anybody that is yet offering an integrated cellphone / landline product where all features work seamlessly across both platforms.

Unified Communications. A few VoIP providers are now offering applications that will support phone calls, voice mail, email, chat applications, conference calls and other forms of communications and give users the ability to easily switch how they are communicating. But most don’t yet have this fully developed.

There seems to a lot more functionality with VoIP business lines than what I was able to find just a few years ago. I think carriers need to be putting pressure on their switch vendors to keep up with the innovations going on with VoIP. Many businesses are going to like the integration with common business software and with video calling and if you are selling landline solutions you need to keep pace with what customers want.

What is WebRTC?

logo-webrtcThere is yet another new threat/opportunity for the telecom industry in WebRTC. That stands for Web Real Time Communication and is a project to create an open standard for delivering high-quality voice and data applications for a wide variety of platforms including browsers and mobile phones, all using the same set of protocols.

The most immediate use for the new standard is building direct voice and video communication applications from every major web browser. The project is being funded and developed by Google, Mozilla, and Opera. Microsoft has said that they are working towards developing a real-time WebRTC app for Internet Explorer.

From a user perspective, WebRTC will enable anybody to initiate voice and/or video communication with anybody else using a browser or using a WebRTC-enabled device. What is unique about this effort is that the brains of the communication platform will be built into the browser, meaning that an external communications program will not be required to make such a connection. This creates browser-to-browser communication and cuts out a host of existing software platforms used today to perform this function.

This means that the big browser companies are making a big play for a piece of the communications market. The WebRTC platform will put a lot of pressure on other existing applications. For example, WebRTC could become the de facto standard for unified communications. This would let the browser companies tackle this business, which is today controlled by softswitch, router, or software vendors.

WebRTC is also going to directly compete with all of the various communication platforms like GoToMeeting and Skype. I know I maintain half a dozen such platforms on my computer that I’ve needed to view slide shows from different clients or vendors. WebRTC would do away with these intermediate platforms and let anybody on a WebRTC browser communicate with somebody else with WebRTC. You should be able to have a web meeting where there are participants on Google Chrome, Mozilla Foxfire, or Internet Explorer, all viewing and discussing a slide show together from their different platforms.

In the next generation of the standard the group will be developing what they call Object-RTC, which will be a platform that will integrate the Internet of Things into the same communications platform. This will enable anybody from any browser to easily communicate with devices that are on the Object-RTC platform, making it far easier for the normal person to integrate the IoT into their daily lives. This could become the standard platform that will allow you to communicate with your IoT devices equally easily from your PC, tablet, or smartphone. This is presumably a market grab by the browser companies to make sure that the smartphone doesn’t become the only interface to the IoT.

While the WebRTC development effort is largely being funded by Google and the other browser companies, numerous other companies have been developing WebRTC applications in an effort to keep themselves relevant in the future communications market.

Since the WebRTC platform is browser-based, it’s estimated that it will be available to 6 billion devices by the end of 2019. One would think that browser-based communications will grow to be a major means of communicating by then, putting additional pressure on companies today that make a living from providing voice.

Because it’s browser-based, WebRTC is likely to have more of an initial impact on the residential market. Larger businesses today communicate using custom software packages, and as WebRTC becomes the standard those platforms will likely all incorporate the new standard. To that effect we have already seen some large companies snag some of the early WebRTC developers. For example, Telfonica acquired start-up Tokbox in 2012. More recently, the education software services company Blackboard bought Requestec. And Snapchat paid $30 million to buy WebRTC startup AddLive.

One can expect a mature WebRTC platform to transform online communications. If people widely accept WebRTC (or the one of many different programs that will use the software), then it could quickly become the standard way of communicating. What is clear is that with companies like Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla behind the effort, this new communications standard is going to become a major player in the communications business. This is going to be mean fewer minutes on the POTS telephone network. It will also put huge pressure on intermediate communications platforms like GoToMeeting, and those kind of services might eventually disappear. I remember hearing somebody say a decade ago that voice would eventually be a commodity, and this is yet another step towards making voice free.