17 November 2008

VoIP -- is it ready for the small-time?

You don't get something for nothing. If it's cheap, there's always a trade-off. You get what you pay for.

All these familiar clichés are effectively saying the same thing, and it's hard to think of a market where this doesn't hold true. Exceptions, where they exist, usually turn out to be loss-leaders. And it's true in the VoIP market too -- and in a week where voice-grade equipment vendors such as Nortel are cutting back heavily as sales plummet, can VoIP rise to the challenge of filling the gap between expectations and reality?

You might think that it's a bit late in the day for this discussion and to an extent I'd agree. After all, the industry hype about 'the year of VoIP' happened a three or four years back. Now the dust has settled and VoIP has made considerable inroads into businesses large and small.

But the voice market -- or rather, the way that people use voice and the expectations they have of it -- is quite different to those in other parts of the IT forest. For example, connectivity does fail from time to time, due to external influences -- such as extreme bad weather, an over-enthusiastic trench-digging JCB or finger trouble at the local exchange.

We're used to that now. We don't like it, we get annoyed if not downright angry that we cant get our emails, but we accept that systems do fail. The same goes for almost all IT systems. We've been trained to accept that this new -- now not-so-new -- technology is not fail-proof.

VoIP's unique features
When it comes to VoIP, though, things are different. The trouble is firstly that voice is an intensely personal way of communicating, so we accord it great importance. The second is that the voice carriers have had a century to hone their circuit-switched systems to such a level of refinement that we just don't expect voice to fail.

And in general, it doesn't. Add to that the fact that many point-of-sale systems system still use modems, and fax machines -- those ugly duckling remnants of 1970s technology -- remain in widespread use, and it's clear that voice circuits still retain a number of unique advantages.

This is the challenge faced by vendors of VoIP systems. You've got to be bullet-proof, you've got to look like a voice circuit to a fax machine or modem, and you've got to sound like a voice circuit to a human being.

VoIP's big plus from an end-user perspective is that it's cheap, especially for long-distance and international calls. What's more, say proponents, VoIP's ability to add features, such as shared contact books and the like, are compelling.

So far so obvious. But the experience of many users -- most users? -- is that it's nowhere near as reliable as it's made up to be, and often, the quality isn't that great either.

Small companies need not apply?
Here's an example. One small company I know uses VoIP exclusively and, most of the time, it works fine. But every now and again, one senior member of staff -- the most technically knowledgeable person in the office -- has to spend significant amounts of time either liaising with the VoIP provider and carrier, or both, and fiddling with the router configuration. He's not paid to do that -- it's a waste of his time.

This example not unique, especially in companies with zero expertise on tap.

And what about those added features? As one commentator points out, "on a PBX system with 40-50 users, less than half will know how to use the recall button and you won't need the fingers of one hand to count the number who use hold or mute."

Of course, if you throw enough money a VoIP system you can have that famed reliability and probably high quality voice too. But for everyone but the large enterprise, there remain a number of caveats.

You'll still need a backup line to the PSTN for emergency calls and just-in-case. You'll have to be prepared to spend more time than you otherwise might fixing and fiddling with configurations. If you rely on Skype, with its highly proprietary technology, you'll still need a backup for when it goes down -- as the system did in August last year. And if you go for a technology that's a bit more robust and which offers business-quality, VoIP forums are awash with people having problems getting it to work reliably.

All this is not to denigrate VoIP generally. It's big step forward from what we had in many ways but we seem in many ways to be stuck in an interim phase, where neither the networks nor the software are quite ready for voice.

However, it is clear that, now VoIP has reached a broad mass market, expectations are high. This means the technologists -- largely in the shape of the vendors and service providers -- need to pay attention to user demands for ease of use, for reliability and for quality if the reality gap is to be filled, especially at the low to middle ends of the business VoIP market.

And a bit of training on how to use all the whizz-bang features probably wouldn't go amiss either.

1 comment:

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