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XO Taps into Cloud Communications

Today, XO Communications launched the XO Enterprise Cloud Communications services. XO Enterprise Cloud Communications integrates a wide range of IP telephony features, local and long distance calling, enterprise-wide HD voice and video, network services, and IP phone sets in a communications as a service, per-user pricing model. Features of XO Enterprise Cloud Communications include:

  • IP Telephony and unified communications applications
  • Free local and site-to-site calling within the enterprise
  • Long distance calling plans
  • Enterprise-wide HD voice and HD video
  • Choices of IP phone sets from Cisco and Polycom
  • Web portal for managing service for each location and employees
  • Quality of Service monitoring
  • MPLS IP-VPN network services
  • Robust Service Level Agreements for all services
  • Business continuity capabilities

XO is looking to target businesses of 50 to 1,000 seats per enterprise, primarily in the education, healthcare, professional services and retail verticals.

What I like about the new offering:

XO has been tremendously successful with its XO IP Flex (also available with a VPN feature), XO SIP and XO Enterprise SIP offerings. The new offering nicely rounds up its SIP/cloud portfolio adding hosted PBX functionality for businesses choosing to outsource their voice communications infrastructure. Leveraging its SIP expertise, intimate knowledge of the BroadSoft platform and MPLS capabilities, XO will be able to deliver a highly reliable cloud-based voice service with managed bandwidth and QoS and carrier-grade SLAs. The option to include phone set costs in monthly recurring charges is likely to appeal to businesses concerned about the upfront costs of replacing existing phone instruments. XO has broad geographic reach and therefore the ability to address the needs of larger, multi-site customers migrating to hosted services. A web portal will allow customers to monitor and manage their cloud services.

XO appears to be a late-comer to the hosted telephony space. Several dozens of service providers have launched hosted IP telephony in the U.S. over the past eight years. However, its cautious approach may prove more successful as it has had the time to master SIP and develop the right capabilities for its target audience. Also, larger businesses are only now beginning to fully understand and appreciate the benefits of hosted/cloud communications which creates more favorable conditions for the delayed launch. Furthermore, XO is looking to position this new offering with a TCO improvement value, rather than the more traditional value proposition of inexpensive long distance or in-house staff replacement of early hosted offerings targeted at smaller businesses of less than 50 users.

Points to be addressed by XO:

Service providers that have been offering hosted voice for some years now are already looking to enhance their solutions with other communications and collaboration application such as conferencing, contact center, messaging, presence and collaboration. XO has contact center capabilities, as well as OCS, Exchange and SharePoint integrations on its roadmap, but immediate comparisons may tip the scales in favor of a competitor. I need to point out that not everyone (in fact, maybe few) larger businesses are looking to immediately outsource their entire communications infrastructure from voice to messaging from a third party. However, the sooner XO announces the ability to deliver a more complete UC package, the greater its competitive advantage is going to be. Also, service providers are increasingly looking to integrate communications with business applications (CRM being the typical low-hanging fruit) based on customer demand, which is something XO will need to explore in the future.

XO claims it has the tools and partnerships in place to manage this service all the way to the desktop. In fact, it offers on-premises probe, usage, network and support services. Hopefully, it handles this aspect properly, because many a service provider have failed associating cloud and hosted with a complete hands-off approach as far as the customer premises are concerned. But a reliable hosted communications service, especially when larger businesses are involved, requires a significant involvement in customer LAN, WAN and CPE upfront assessment and ongoing management.

WebRTC

Global Clossing Launches CaaS Suite

Global Crossing announced Global Crossing® Communications as a Service (CaaS), which it refers to as “the first phase of its network-centric, cloud-based solution set.”  It is positioned as combining Global Crossing IP Virtual Private Network (IP VPN), Session Initiated Protocol (SIP) Trunking, and Global Crossing Ready Access® hosted audio conferencing services to provide “a tailor-made collaboration experience”.  These combined capabilities also support the functionality of Global Crossing Connect Mobile, which enables users to join or host an audio conference from popular mobile devices by clicking on an icon and also syncs meetings with users’ calendars.

What I like about the new offering:

Global Crossing has a long and successful track record in network management and delivering network-based services to both service provider partners (using a wholesale business model) and directly to enterprise customers. Its expertise in IP VPN and SIP trunking technologies offers a solid foundation for the delivery of cloud-based communications applications. Also, the new shared-seat billing model (with monthly fees replacing per-minute plans) is likely to appeal to customers as it makes communications costs more predictable and easier to manage. Finally, the offering is integrated with the uCommand customer portal, which empowers in-house IT staff to closely monitor and manage the organization’s use of cloud services.

What begs further investigation:

It is not clear from the press release exactly how Global Crossing’s IP VPN, SIP Trunking and hosted audio conferencing services are coming together. Since these services have been around for a while, it is not clear what has changed, except for the new billing model. I am intrigued by the pending addition of telephony, video, messaging and presence services to the CaaS suite, which will mark Global Crossing’s foray into the world of cloud-based Unified Communications (UC).  What makes this potential move especially interesting is the fact that Global Crossing’s customer base consists of mostly large enterprises. Since, so far, most hosted telephony and UC services have been targeted at SMBs, Global Crossing has an opportunity to differentiate and offer unique value in an untapped (from a CaaS point of view) market segment.

WebRTC

Cloud, Cloudy, Cloudier …

Today we woke up to multiple “cloud” announcements at Enterprise Connect, including those by Global Crossing, Siemens Enterprise Communications, Verizon and XO Communications. I am sure I missed some. This proves that cloud is top of mind for many industry participants and we are bound to see a proliferation of cloud offerings throughout the year and going forward.

 I understand there was also a cloud panel discussion that took place this morning. Since I am not attending the event, all I can tell (judging by various tweets) is that the definition of cloud is only getting cloudier. While customer awareness of the benefits of cloud services is increasing and is likely to drive demand, it is too early for vendors and service providers to sit and watch their R&D efforts bear fruit. Education and continued focus on understanding customer needs and developing viable go-to-market strategies will be needed for cloud services to live up to their hype.

 I intend to follow up with some brief comments on the key announcements mentioned above.

WebRTC

Mobile Video for the Enterprise: Potential and Practical Considerations

Recently, video has grabbed an impressive mindshare among consumers. A plethora of video applications including video streaming, video search, video on demand, and video telephony, including mobile video, are experiencing rapid adoption. YouTube is now the number-two search engine in the world; the tablet and smartphone markets are exploding; and video has just surpassed all other applications in terms of network traffic. The next generation of tech-savvy prosumers using some form of video in their personal lives is going to demand the same experience and capabilities in the business environment.

As mobile video gains popularity among consumers, is it likely to also become the next frontier in enterprise communications and collaboration? My colleagues Roopam Jain and Shyam Krishnan took a look at this market opportunity and presented their findings in a study titled: Assessing the Potential for Mobile Videoconferencing in the Enterprise. Here follows a summary of their key observations.

Technologies that support collaboration among users at different locations are growing in demand. There has been a surge in the interest for videoconferencing, ranging from desktop to telepresence to mobile videoconferencing. As mobility continues to become the norm in everyday life and business alike, end users are looking to extend their enterprise communication experiences to mobile devices.

Faster, smarter, and more capable smart phones and the emergence of collaboration-ready enterprise tablets are fueling the interest in mobile videoconferencing. While we believe that mainstream adoption is still a few years away, the demand drivers are all aligned for the market to pick up pace.

The 2010 worldwide shipments of tablets (partially or entirely) used for business purposes was 600,000 units and is expected to go up to 49.1 million in 2015. We project that 90% of the enterprise tablets shipped in 2015 will have forward-facing cameras and will therefore be video-enabled.

Smartphone growth will be explosive. With shipments nearing 263 million smartphones in 2010, that number is expected to grow to about 500 million in 2015. In 2015, it is forecast that 90% of the smartphones will have forward-facing cameras and therefore will be video-enabled, growing up from 35% in 2010.

The move toward 4G will help carriers deliver higher-quality video. Carriers are jockeying for a more competitive position as the mobile industry moves towards 4G networks. As high bandwidth networks become widely available and camera and phone technologies continue to improve we expect to see more mobile videoconferencing on the horizon. However, there are challenges in store. As the usage of both streaming video and 2-way video catches on with users, it threatens to strangle the networks. Recent moves by network carriers to constrain the demand with monthly data caps will be a hindrance in videoconferencing usage.

Despite all the exciting developments on the device and carrier side and the growing need to have a videoconferencing solution, enterprise-level adoption is still nascent and needs to overcome several challenges, including deployment costs, business case, and increasing levels of security for wireless communications. Security issues with mobile technology are going to be a key focus as the market develops. IT will increasingly standardize on a single smartphone/tablet for its employees. IT’s policy on locking down their enterprise mobile device of choice will continue to prompt users to carry multiple devices.

Mobile videoconferencing can potentially support a wide variety of business solutions, from retail point-of-sale to hospitality, banking, healthcare, manufacturing or any custom business application. It will increasingly support  team collaboration across the entire value chain to shorten decision making time and enable immediate knowledge sharing.

In today’s context, the main use case for mobile videoconferencing in the enterprise remains remote employee interaction – for the mobile workforce or for employees who need a visual collaboration feature to ensure the “personal touch” during the call. Additionally, mobile videoconferencing offers an extension of traditional room-based and desktop based videoconferencing and leverages existing videoconferencing investments by extending the reach to the mobile user.

In planning a mobility strategy, enterprises should increasingly look at the full spectrum of devices which include smartphones and tablets along with laptops. Providing secure communications on a broad array of devices will be essential. Additionally, users will increasingly look at extending the Unified Communications experience to their mobile devices.

At the very outset, small-scale pilots would provide a good insight into typical usage stats. Mobile videoconferencing needs to be cost-justified, prior to deployment. All the key stakeholders must look at the network as a critical component in the process – developments in LTE and 4G in general, would be key to the success of mobile videoconferencing.

What do you think?

Also check out James Brehm’s blog on mobile video here.

WebRTC

Avaya Ventures into a Virtual Reality

On February 10th, Avaya launched a new on-demand, cloud-based option of its immersive web collaboration platform Avaya web.alive. The platform is available both as a premises-based solution and a SaaS offering, the latter being the focus of the new announcement, along with some new features and capabilities.

This new solution presents a virtual reality, which, in some ways, resembles the virtual event platforms (such as those offered by ON24, InXpo and Unisfair) but uses avatars and game-like tools and experiences, more similar to Second Life. I’ve heard some define the “traditional” (only in the context of this fast-evolving space) virtual platforms as virtual events and the likes of Second Life – as virtual environments. The monikers don’t matter much, but there are some differences, which we intend to tackle in more detail in a forthcoming study.

It’s great that Avaya is offering a free web-based demo. Anyone can try the environment at  http://avayalive.com/tryit. It will be beneficial for end users to experience this unique, advanced technology first-hand before considering a full-fledged deployment or even a serious pilot. As an analyst, I was privileged to have several sessions with the Avaya team, but I am hearing that there is almost always someone in there who can help random visitors find their way through the different tools and functionalities.

For me, who’s never (NEVER) played any computer games or experienced 3D, doesn’t like Sci-Fi (didn’t even fully appreciate Avatar or The Matrix),… (the list goes on, but you get the idea) … this was both a thrilling and somewhat distracting experience. I did not take the time to test the environment before the pre-launch and ventured into it with a male avatar. Of course, I heard little from the presentation in the first few minutes because I was busy changing my gender and choosing my facial features and clothes to wear.

The next challenge was finding my way around the environment and learning how to control my avatar using the mouse and keypad. Eventually, I found myself standing all by myself in front of the speaker with my head spinning in different directions trying to find the best viewpoint. Somehow, using a 3-rd person view, with my avatar still proudly standing in front of the whole crowd, I managed to get my eyesight so low that I was staring upwards into people’s … well, lower backs. Toward the end of the event, though, I was boldly strolling around the environment, magically walking through people and furniture. And shouting. Until I realized it was not a good idea, because others could hear me without me noticing they were there.

I’ll end the story here and just briefly summarize what I liked and what I would wish to see improved going forward.

The things I liked:

  • Such virtual environments are fun! It makes you giddy to design your persona (without the help of cosmetic surgery) and watch yourself from a third person point of view (there must be a split-personality tendency in all of us).
  • You do get the impression that you are “meeting” with people in a quasi-realistic social environment, unlike the sensation one gets using more “traditional” conferencing tools.
  • I liked seeing the pictures of the people I was close by or talking to, in addition to their oversexed avatars.
  • I really liked the presentation and collaboration capabilities. I was able to easily share my desktop and saw demonstrations of video feeds and slide presentations.
  • I like the fact that there are private rooms and people can have meetings behind closed doors. Only authenticated users have access to these rooms, but they can authenticate others. Once you are inside the room and the door is closed, no one else can hear the conversation OR see into the room.
  • Also, a group engaged in a more private conversation in the public area can use a whisper mode, which is not audible to those at a greater distance but does not degrade the quality of the conversation for the main parties.
  • Regardless of my “mishaps” facetiously recounted above, the environment is fairly intuitive and does not take a whole lot of learning to be able to navigate through it.
  • I have to give credit to the Avaya people, too – they offered help and were prepared to patiently address all kinds of questions.
  • From a business point of view, this solution has tremendous advantages as a web-based, on-demand platform. It is easy to deploy and use, even for small businesses, and is quite cost-effective at $49/month for a single account holder and up to 8 people attending at any given time.
  • The platform also offers analytics tools that can help businesses assess the value they are receiving from enhanced collaboration.

What I would want to see improved:

  • These visual environments can be very distracting. I heard people saying the virtual experience helped them avoid multi-tasking. In fact, I noticed I was more focused on what was taking place on the screen, but was it really the RIGHT thing on the screen I was watching/doing? I found myself checking people out (some were wearing funky outfits), rather than watching the slides. Maybe there should be a way for the speaker or person managing the event to help/force attendees to focus on the presentation screens whenever appropriate? I would not propose a dress code – that would be taking it too far J
  • There need to be some additional privacy options. I discussed the private rooms in the section above, but I believe there should be a way to “encapsulate” people who wish to have a more private conversation in the public area. I imagine, visually it could be something like the Avaya Flare spotlight. In a real-life environment, such as in a typical conference facility, people always complain there aren’t enough meeting rooms and end up looking for these two-armchairs-and-a-table isolated areas in the hotel corridors to have a private chat. At a cocktail party, people use facial expressions and body language to keep unwanted parties out of their private conversation. But the virtual environment needs different tools. I am told that users can see who’s within listening area by watching the number next to an ear icon at the bottom of the screen. But people tend to get distracted or too engaged in a conversation to pay attention. So they need to be able to take precautions.
  • Changing your voice, gesturing and other functions are only a right-click away. But I would want to see them in a menu bar – similar to a browser or Microsoft Office experience. It’s all about familiar, user-friendly interfaces, right?
  • There needs to be an option to mute everybody (for both the organizers and the attendees), except the speaker. It is distracting when people are chatting around you. Is it like real life? Yes, but we always try to improve real life, don’t we?
  • You have to hit Escape to be able to use some of the Options and to do other things on your desktop. It becomes bothersome, if you still want to do some multi-tasking.
  • If you have a slow DSL or cable connection, the audio can get garbled. (I had the rare luck to have my Internet service switched to a new provider right in the middle of the launch!)
  • Training, training, training!! Yes, it is intuitive; yes, younger generations will figure it out quickly and enjoy it. But for effective business use across different generations and types of users, organizations adopting this tool will need to strongly encourage employees to attend demos and brief training sessions. I have been told that Avaya does offer training. I think customers should not underestimate the value of a proper introduction to the new tool and ensure employees become familiar with key features and functionalities to avoid disappointment and misuse.

Go ahead and try it and let me know what you think. But don’t forget to mute yourself (press M on your keyboard) as you enter the environment or else someone can overhear your business conversations, kids shouting or dogs barking.

Are there other similar platforms you like better? Why?

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