Unified Communications Consultancy Limited, a sister company to CQC Consult, focuses on the demand side of the voice, video and data converged networking markets. Our expertise in IP WAN's and LAN's, together with IP telephony and Unified Communications, is available for companies large and small. The Unified Communications Readiness AssessmentTM is an inexpensive service that can help you work out if UC can help you.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Introducing Mark Deakin

This is not a product push... trust me, I am a consultant!

I have put a link to Mark Deakin's blog on my page (see left). Mark is Microsoft's UK product manager for the Unified Communications Group. As such, he is the man steering MS into the UC ocean. He has a big task on his hands and I wish him luck.

He has put a link to my blog on his blog, so I am returning the favour.



PS When I find a decent IP telephony and/or UC blog for any vendor or channel partner, I shall add it to my blog. The more people out there talking (sensibly) about our subject matter, the better. for all of us. It can only help the users, the channel and the other interested parties understand UC better.

Friday, 17 August 2007

What a difference a day makes...

Having posted my blog on the viability of Skype as a business-class communications service on Wednesday, here we have a story from Telecom Web, datelined Thursday...


Skype has a global 'heart attack'.

"An unknown number of millions of e-Bay VoIP subsidiary Skype users around the world today found themselves without service, due to an admitted software glitch that could take a day or more to fix.

Skype's in-and-out VoIP connections to standard dial-up phones allegedly still had a heartbeat, according to hearbeat.skype.com, the company's online network-status-reporting site.

In a brief posting on the "heartbeat" site, the company said simply: "Some of you may be having problems logging into Skype. Our engineering team has determined that it's a software issue. We expect this to be resolved within 12 to 24 hours." Skype also cited what it called "peer-to-peer network issues" in an earlier statement. At the time that was posted, it appears Skype's problems had started at least 14 hours earlier.

In addition to the inability of Skype users to log on and to make calls to other Skype users, there also were scattered reports that Skype's short message service (SMS) was taking anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to deliver text messages to cellphones.

Just what the software problem is was not disclosed, but suspicions were it might be linked to some "routine maintenance" that had been scheduled to take place yesterday. That was only supposed to affect entry to some Web-based paid services, and not the free Skype-to-Skype calls. The issue apparently does not involve Skype's client software, installed on end-user PCs, although Skype did release a new version of that software not long ago. The company advised users to keep their client software running; in that way, they would be automatically logged in once the mysterious problem is fixed.

As the outage continued, upset Skype users from a long list of countries began posting to various blogs. The most rattled, to no surprise, were those who had eschewed their "plain old telephone service (POTS)" and gone whole-hog for Skype's VoIP service. Many of those log entries pined for the "five nines" reliability of POTS - a standard of service VoIP has yet to approach, although a little bit of quick math does reveal that, if Skype is out for just 24 to 48 hours, it would be able to claim "two nines" availability - i.e., 99 percent of the time it works. Just not today.

Just how many millions attempted to log on and failed will, of course, never be known. Typically Skype, which claims a phenomenal 220 million accounts, is said to have between 5 million and 6 million users online at any given time, and it reported a high of 9 million in January."

The words 'eat', 'my' and 'hat' come to mind.

That's the comms business for you. Interesting.



Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Skype: Can it ever be ‘business-class’?

Most comms business people have heard about Skype’s ‘free’ Internet phone service; many have used it. Ask them if it is ‘business-class’ and most will say no, citing the poor voice quality and security concerns. Until recently, I thought the same. Now I am not so sure…

I use Skype to communicate with business partners in this country, Europe and the United States a couple of times a week. I do so because I should use the technology I write and speak about for a living, and because it is cheap: Skype to Skype calls cost nothing (as I pay for my broadband link anyway) and the SkypeOut service costs very little - a one hour call to a US landline costs just £1.00 at peak time.

I like Skype’s simplicity. I like the choice of media: chat, voice and video. I like the multi-party audio conferencing capability. And even with four people on the call the voice quality is quite acceptable provided all participants are using one of the many Skype-compatible headsets or phones available: I use a Polycom Communicator, which is so good I voted it one of my products of the year last December.

But until a short while ago I couldn’t imagine how Skype would fit into the average small to medium business, or a larger enterprise organisation, both of which use communications as a means to an end, rather than the end in its self. I felt it wasn’t suitable for such users because the voice quality can vary if the end-point equipment is not set up properly; there is no control over its usage and there are ongoing concerns about security. My intuition has been validated by recent research by Nemertes which suggest that 46% of the respondents to a poll of enterprise users have a policy to actively block Skype on their networks. And the French Department of Research has issued a recommendation to government departments to do the same. Just say ‘non’ to Skype!

In the face of such resistance why do I now think that Skype may well be able to upgrade itself to business class? Mainly because of the research I conducted for a client’s whitepaper on peer to peer (P2P) networking, which turned up a surprising amount of plaudits from Skype business users and suggested that there are a growing number of ecosystem partners developing software and products targeted at business customers. I would be the first to admit that this is not exactly scientific proof that Skype will become a valuable business tool, but read on and see if you agree with my assessment.

The first thing I did, as always when I start a research project, was to Google Skype - two business names so successful they have been become nouns: I often say “can I Skype you at 3.00 pm” - and got an astonishing number of returns: 213,000,000 in all languages which is a big number for a company that has only been around for 5 years. Microsoft throws up 564 million returns but is over 30 years old now, and in its last fiscal year had revenues of over $50 billion, compared to Skype’s estimated $285 million in the last reported four quarters.

The vast majority (some 90%, according to the company) of its revenues are from SkypeOut, with the remainder from SkypeIn, Voice Mail and Pay per Lead services. Most of this money comes from consumers though the company’s own research suggests that some 30% of the installed base are business users, though it is suggested by some industry pundits that most of these are individuals who have installed the software on business computers without their IT department approval. And up until now most Skype ecosystem vendors have made their money by selling headsets and phones to consumers - including the bizarre Spyke the Skype robot phone.

But now there is a growing constellation of Business to Business (B2B) ISV’s and hardware companies such as VoSky (which makes a PABX to Skype gateway) and StoneVoice, with their SkyStone Cisco CallManager to Skype software, looming over the horizon. From here on in it seems there will be money to be made selling Skype equipment to businesses. The more B2B companies with an economic interest in Skype’s penetration of the business market, the more likely it is to happen.

Leaving the wishful thinking of comms business marketing managers to one side though, it is the sheer numbers of users that leads me to believe that Skype will succeed as a business tool. It has been downloaded over 220 million times. There are some 9.2 million users online at any one time. But it is mainly because its IM/chat, audio conferencing and video telephony features make unified communications a need-to-have rather than nice-to-have capability. And we all know that UC is the next great business comms revolution, which the giants of the industry will ensure succeeds - it is in everyone’s interest that Skype becomes business class, and I think that it will.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

UC still has a long way to go, methinks!

Though I have no doubt whatsoever that the unification of communications will occur, and that it is the underlying technology required for the next great revolution in human communications (the others being the invention of writing, the printing press, the electric telegraph, the telephone, television, computing, the Internet and mobile telephony - which are all brought together by UC) I still think we have a long way to go!

What has caused this 'Thomas the Disbeliever' thought to enter my head and thence to this blog? A common or garden audio conference call between 5 people in 4 locations on either side of the Atlantic. First there was the confusion about which conference bridge should be used. Then there was an issue with one of the participants using a mobile phone. I must admit I added to the problem by using Skype to save me the cost of a 45 minute international call (it only cost £1.00... 8-). Suffice to say it took 15 minutes to get all the participants on-line and the call quality wasn't great. Latency was the main issue, together with some tonal harshness. But we persevered and the job in hand got done.

I dream of a time, in the not too distant future, when setting up a conference call, be it audio or video, between disparate end-points no matter which vendor nor which carrier technology: PSTN, VoIP or cellular, is as easy as setting up a blog spot was. Of course, there was only one person, his PC, a carrier and an application service provider (a.k.a. Google) involved in that... and voice quality wasn't a factor. The UC vendors are all proclaiming their solutions will deliver what I want, but in reality that will only work when everyone has the same systems and end-points from the same vendor; which will never happen.

Oh well, I can live in hope. And in the meantime I can watch with interest and, hopefully, keep the uni-comm community informed.



Friday, 3 August 2007

Microsoft's Office Roundtable video conference system - first thoughts.

Yesterday I had a demonstration of Microsoft's new Office Roundtable video conferencing system courtesy of Mark Deakin, the UK Product Manager for Unified Communications, at the company's Thames Valley Park headquarters. I shall be writing it up for the Audio and Video Conferencing feature article in the September edition of Comms Business magazine http://www.cbmagazine.co.uk/ so I shan't go into detail here, but I did want to post my top-level thoughts on the product whilst they were fresh in my head.

Whilst I wasn't totally blown away by the system, I was very impressed. Having spent part of my time at Cisco studying the video conferencing market, which meant seeing many different VC systems from Tandberg, Polycom, Sony and others, I think I have a reasonable feel for what will sell and (perhaps more importantly) what will be actually be used when installed: the bane of traditional VC systems being that, once bought, they would sit in meeting rooms gathering dust. Microsoft's Roundtable will sell and will be used, because it is priced right (at $3000.00 or so) and if you know how to use Outlook, you will know how to use Roundtable. No more having to call the VC guy to set the system up!

The only obvious downside to the system, to my mind, is the screen issue. Remote users will normally be expected to use their web-camera equipped PC to participate in the Roundtable conference, which is not a problem. But participants sat in the Roundtable system location (normally a meeting room) will have to turn their head between the camera/mike/speaker device (the Roundtable itself) and the display device or devices, which could be one or more lap-tops or a PC projector generated image on a screen or wall, or perhaps a monitor attached to one of the laptops. The significant loss of eye contact could be a distraction to the flow of the meeting. As we weren't actually participating in a meeting I can't be sure how much of a problem this will be.

Having said that, I expect that, some time soon, one of the many companies that produce complementary products for the vast Microsoft market will come up with a neat screen solution to this problem - perhaps a circle of LCD panels around a chassis, on top of which the Roundtable will sit.

If you want to know more about the system please go to http://www.microsoft.com/uc/products/roundtable.mspx
And of course, you can read my article in September!