Trends in communications change as often as the weather and those companies that can anticipate the trends are often the most successful. As for the biggest trend right now, Ian Colville, production manager at Aculab believes it is the growing interest in hosted – or cloud-based – communications. When asked what one product or service the market needs the most, Colville pointed out that different customers have completely different requirements which continually evolve. Such questions and answers were part of an interview with TMC CEO Rich Tehrani and Colville in anticipation of ITEXPO West 2010.
Asked about social media and how that has changed communication with customers, Colville noted that the use of social media tools has allowed the company to develop a broader network of contacts, engage with specific groups, launch new products and gather market intelligence. He is however cautiously optimistic that we will see a wave of HD voice capability move across mobile networks and enterprise VoIP deployments throughout 2011. Colville went on to highlight that video chat is targeted at the consumer, while mobile conferencing is more of a business application.
As for the impact cloud-based services has had on business, Colville was quick to note that there are two types of businesses – those with their heads buried in the sand and those with their heads in the clouds. Aculab is continuing to develop solutions for cloud and virtual environments to hopefully move the sand-bound business to the cloud. As for the technology development that will have the greatest impact in 2011, Colville pointed to the potential for competitive products for the iPad and increased usage of hosted and cloud-based ‘anything-as-a-service’ as well as the proliferation of SIP trunking.
The full conversation follows:
What is the most significant trend in communications today? Why?
From Aculab’s perspective, the growing interest in hosted, or cloud-based communications, is a trend that will only accelerate. The economics behind hosted communications make it very appealing to service providers and enterprises. There are a number of efficiencies derived by putting technology in the cloud. Benefits like reducing the reliance on expensive hardware that uses significant resources in terms of power, real estate and administration is very appealing to customers. In addition, the hosted solution negates any concern about technological obsolescence. And, of course, the ability to add features, integrate new capabilities and disparate services is much easier and less expensive to accomplish in a hosted-environment as opposed to on premise.
And perhaps most importantly, the Software-as-a-Service model allows customers to shift their spending from capital investment to operational expenditures. This eliminates the risk associated with hardware investment, and should hopefully give customers the flexibility to integrate new services and functionalities as they see fit.
What is the one product or service the market is most in need of?
In actuality, there isn’t any one product or service that I think will ignite the market. Different customers have completely different requirements, and these needs and wants continually evolve. The breadth and scope of innovation has already brought a wide array of communications functionalities to market. Solutions like conferencing, collaboration tools, customer interaction services, and a host of other capabilities, are just a few examples, and yet, we’re not even close to the tipping point. Customers will continue to demand more tools and services, in the manner that best suits their needs.
The burden of providing these new solutions falls squarely on the shoulders of the applications developers. They will be at the forefront of providing the functionalities, features and services that will satisfy these accelerating demands. The ability to deliver new innovation—quickly—to market will be of paramount importance to all consumer- and enterprise-facing providers. We anticipate that this dynamic will actually spur innovation. Software developers, who may not have historically served the communications market, may try to quickly capitalize on these opportunities. Traditional communications developers will also need to change the way they’ve served the market by substantially shortening development times and reducing costs.
This changing landscape may result in an entire new wave of ‘single-purpose’ products and services—solutions that can easily be tweaked to meet the specific requirements of customers.
How is your company leveraging the growth of social media to enhance your own business?
Social media is a phenomenon that has gained huge traction. Blurring the demarcation between vendor and target audience, it focuses on relationship building, conversing with and helping people by giving them ideas, answers and resources – without directly promoting products or services. Social media also opens up the doors to gathering feedback and opinions, which in turn enables you to fine tune your strategy. Of course the ultimate goal is to convert your social network into paying customers.
This approach is not unlike Aculab’s overall philosophy for doing business. We fully understand and appreciate that for our products, the decision making process is not instant and once made, the customer is in fact choosing to enter into a partnership, based on product and service quality, reliability and trust. In order to help customers make that informed decision we invest heavily in our pre-sales support offerings, ensuring a full and comprehensive understanding of our product and company differentials is appreciated. Social media dovetails very well into this philosophy, allowing us to interact on a personal level even earlier in the sales cycle.
Employing relevant social media tools has allowed Aculab to develop a broader network of contacts, engage with specific groups, launch new products and gather market intelligence as well as keep abreast of market developments in real time. Aculab’s strategy most definitely includes further investment into social media and we are certain that we’ll continue to see positive results.
Nearly every phone manufacturer is now incorporating support for wideband codecs. Will we finally see widespread HD voice deployments in 2011?
I am cautiously optimistic that we will see a wave of HD Voice capability move across both mobile networks and enterprise VoIP deployments during 2011. Orange/France Telecom is leading the way in Europe. They have committed to full deployments throughout France this summer and the Orange UK web site states that its UK network will be HD Voice ready during August. I don’t think the other mobile operators in France and the UK will let them take much of a lead – there are no announcements but I am sure Vodafone, Three and O2 are working on their own rollouts of HD Voice capability in their core networks. The typical 18 month mobile device replacement cycle, and the fact that HD Voice capable handsets are currently quite rare, will mean that take up by consumers may be slow, but I am sure that it will become the norm for mobile calls.
The roadblocks to widespread fixed HD Voice are still the issues over interoperability between islands of HD capability. Given the prolonged economic recession, it may be later than 2011 when we see widespread adoption, but like the rolling stone – the momentum is there, and it’s picking up speed all the time.
What are your thoughts on the viability of mobile video chat or conferencing?
There is no doubt that mobile video chat is a technically viable service – Skype, Fring, Qik and Apple’s FaceTime video applications have proved it can work well – though you notice that these services I mention are all IP-based with a video ‘pipe’ that is not restricted to 64kbit/s as is the case with 3G mobile video calls using the 3G-324M protocol. They will work on 3G mobile devices, but will use the Internet data package rather than any specific pool of video-call minutes that the user may have.
The real question, however, is one of economic viability – and I see video chat as more of a consumer pitch – you are more likely to want to video call your friends or family than have a video call with a business associate. In this space, video has already had a rocky ride – here in the UK, the mobile network Three made a big fuss of video calling when they launched, but the consumers weren’t interested. It seems to have had a better reception in parts of Asia, but on the whole, video chat, widely predicted to be the killer-app for 3G mobile, has not lived up to expectations. Again, perhaps we should learn from Apple on this one – they are offering FaceTime for free! Technically viable – yes, but economic viability is more questionable if the service is considered in isolation.
Mobile video conferencing:
Mobile video conferencing is, as we Brits like to say, a different kettle of fish. Conferencing is more of a business service. Many businesses already use conferencing as an alternative to a face-to-face meeting, especially where the participants are geographically dispersed. I can definitely see businesses paying for a service where they can extend the concept of conference calls beyond the specially equipped conference room to their mobile device.
Technically, however, there may be more challenges to overcome than a simpler point-to-point video call, as I shall explain. Typically, in video conference call situations where multiple parties are active, you want to be able to see everyone on the call, not just the active speaker. This is normally achieved using a mosaic effect – small thumbnails for each call participant and a bigger video image for the active speaker. The problem I see is in how you put all this information onto the small screen of a mobile phone and still make it viewable? It would be less of an issue if the mobile device was, for example, a Netbook with a 10” screen, or indeed an Apple iPad. But then that is not what most of us carry around 24x7, so it somewhat defeats the point.
On top of this, the network bandwidth constraints cannot be overlooked. A two way video call may not put such a strain on a 3G or 4G mobile network, but make this an n-way call and things get interesting…
Some interesting challenges ahead for us then both in technically coming up with solutions to make these services possible, and in marketing them so they are economically successful.
What impact has the growth of cloud-based services had on your business?
You might say there are two types of businesses; those with their heads buried in the sand and those with their heads in the clouds. That phrase would neatly sum up the present situation if you are a sceptic; it’s not quite complimentary to either camp. The ‘cloud’ is certainly being hyped at the moment and rightly so, but as with everything, there is never, ever, one single right answer. If open source was the right answer, perhaps Microsoft wouldn’t exist. If Asterisk was the key, telephony equipment manufacturers would be falling by the wayside. If Skype was the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’, there would be more than just 560 million registered users from a global population fast approaching 7 billion.
So, there is plenty of room for non-cloud operations. However, there is no denying the attractiveness of operating in the cloud. From data centres and software as a service to communications as a service, many benefits emerge. Any user of hosted IP PBX services – Centrex for the 21st Century – can see the benefits as, surely, can vendors of hosted services. The vendors under most threat are those offering only hardware platforms for hosted service delivery. They need to focus additionally on software products rather than purely hardware-based systems. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that, somewhere along the line, certainly for telephony applications, a gateway to the PSTN will always be needed.
Aculab, of course, has an answer to such needs in its GroomerII and ApplianX gateways. Aculab also has a number of software-only, IP centric offerings, such as Prosody S, which can be employed in cloud and virtual environments, and we are currently working on more software, which will provide even more seamless integration, and offer Web services interfaces. Yes, indeed, we live in exciting times.
What is the one technology development that will have the greatest impact in 2011?
I think this question needs to be considered on several levels. On the personal, end-user plane, we’ve already had the iPad, which has probably spelt the death knell for Amazon’s Kindle. On the other hand, it should really inspire Amazon and others too, of course, to bring forth competing products. Apple’s products always look good, but they don’t necessarily have the edge when it comes to functionality, which is more important for business users. This will surely be an interesting area in 2011.
On the enterprise stage, across the boards, from SME/SMB to corporate, expect far more usage of hosted and cloud-based ‘anything-as-a-service’ and the proliferation of SIP trunking, which has been hitherto lurking in the wings. On the consumer front, I’m not convinced about video. Why is it that only 36 per cent of Skype-to-Skype calls include video?
I think more will come from cloud computing and the ‘mobile Web’. Look out also for significant developments in the arena of mobile payments.
And what about the automobile market? Maybe I can sit back in my car, sipping champagne and listening to Pandora radio or watching Last.fm over a mobile broadband connection, whilst it automatically takes me where I want to go, avoiding the traffic jams, obeying the speed limit and keeping a safe distance from the car in front? I guess that’ll have to wait until 2012.
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