Monday, March 30, 2015

Next Webinar - Hosted VoIP for SMBs

Got another Ziff Davis webinar coming up in a few weeks. This time around, the topic will be hosted VoIP for SMBs - "why the time is now". If you're an SMB, you don't have to look far these days to find options for adopting VoIP, but to get full value, you need to think things through. VoIP is an easy decision to justify, but it's important to have realistic expectations, especially when going with a hosted provider.

That's the ground I'll be covering during the webinar, and if this is for you, then please join us on April 21 at 2pm ET. All the details you need are here, including the registration form.

Friday, March 27, 2015

TIA’s Network of the Future Conference

I get to my share of industry events, and for a change am posting about one I’m not actually attending. I’ve been sharing ideas recently with TIA, and for their upcoming annual conference, I had an opportunity to moderate. This is an event I’d like to support, but cannot get to due to a schedule conflict. I’ve had a few of these conflicts this year, but that’s out of my control, and you just have to make choices and move on.
So, the next best thing is to say a few things about their event – what I’ll be missing, but what you might catch if you end up attending. Their Network of the Future Conference runs in Dallas from June 2-4, and the lineup is quite strong. Maybe a bit dry for my tastes, as there’s a strong focus on policy and regulation, but that comes with the territory from being in a semi-regulated industry. With that said, here’s an overview of what the conference will be covering.
To address the Network of the Future theme, the conference has three main tracks. First is Future of Wireless, which is self-explanatory. LTE and WiFi will be on the agenda, but so will 5G, so there will be a lot of focus on what’s coming as carriers move to all-IP networks. This will include NFV, small cells and IoT, along with an application-centric approach for developing new services.
The second track is Leveraging the Network, and is focused on new revenues and services. This is where they’ll be examining UC and collaboration, and is the track I would have been involved in if I was able to attend. In addition, they’ll be looking at opportunities in vertical markets like healthcare and retail, and what they call the Industrial Internet of Things. IoT is clearly a big theme across this event - another indication that mobile carriers see their future being about data and not voice.
Finally, the third track is titled Digital Foundations, and backs things up to core network needs instead of the more glamorous world of high-touch applications. To support those applications, this track is about infrastructure issues - Big Data, virtualization, edge computing, data centers, etc.
Beyond those tracks, they have a half day dedicated to policy, and the highlight will be hearing what both Verizon and AT&T have to say about Net Neutrality, probably the biggest issue facing U.S. carriers today. They certainly have a vested interest to protect, and it sure will be interesting to see how they map out and defend their position. Complementing that will be an interview with FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, so Thursday should be a pretty interesting morning.
Also of note – at least for me – will be a couple of sessions around food. First is a cybersecurity breakfast, with speakers from Intel Security and Brink’s. Sure will be interesting to hear these two views – one from the virtual world and one from the physical world – but the threats are just as real for both. Second is a luncheon focused on IoT, and it will great to hear how carriers are thinking about this. No speakers have been announced, but the session includes an M2M showcase, featuring demos from vendors supporting the oneM2M standard.
Finally, the conference is hosting a startup competition. They’re looking for entrants from the ICT space, with an emphasis on things like cybersecurity, data centers, IoT and cloud computing. If you think this could be a good forum for your company, there is still time, as entries close on April 30.
That’s what I’ll be missing, but that shouldn’t get in the way of you attending. For more detail on all these highlights and more, I’ll leave it to you to check out the website and make up your own mind.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Energy Thought Summit - Quick Update

I've been in Austin since Monday night, and the last day of the Energy Thought Summit is underway now. The Zpryme folks have built on the momentum from last year's inaugural ETS, and the content has been really solid here right from the start. This is very much a thought leader summit - top people here from across the energy sector, both speaking and in the audience, with lots of good dialog all around.

I'm just going to post some photos here for now, and over the next couple of days, I'll post my takeaways, both here and wearing my ETS Community Advocate hat on the ETS Insights portal, where I've been posting since January.


Now, this is how you open a conference, Austin-style. These guys were great - too bad they just did a couple of tunes and disappeared shortly after. Most conferences I attend have blaring rock music piped in to keep things lively, but I'll take these guys any day.
Newly-minted ETS President, Andrew Johnston wearing his MC hat
Doyle Beneby, Pres/CEO of CPS Energy, giving the opening keynote. Great presentation about the challenges facing utilities. Sobering stuff, but plenty of silver linings.
ETS Chairman Andres Carvallo leads the panel session on IoT and smart cities
Direct Energy CEO Badar Khan sharing what his company is doing to engage customers via technology, to proactively make energy relevant to them. This is the vision utilities need to transform themselves into customer-centric entities, and if a company of this size can do it, there's plenty of hope for the industry.
This was the highlight for me - and perhaps everyone else. Drew Johnston with the amazing Dr. John Goodenough - the father of the lithium-ion battery, still going strong at 92!
Dr. Massoud Amin - another great presentation, this time, his 2020 industry outlook. Congrats as well, for being the recipient of Zpryme's first Thought Leader of the Year Award - and well deserved, for sure.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Energy Thought Summit, Austin - Final Shout-Out and Recap of my Posts

Travel plans are set for Austin, and ETS15 is around the corner. I'll be flying down on Monday, and the precon events kick off Tuesday morning. If you only know me as a tech/telecom analyst following VoIP, UC, collaboration etc., then you don't have the whole story. Just search my blog and you'll find lots there about my smart grid hat which I've been wearing for many years.

This may seem like a disparate space, but in fact, the disruption underway in energy with big, regulated utilities is going to play out exactly like telecom has over the past 10 years or so. There's huge overlap with communications technologies, and if you don't see that, then check out how big the smart grid/smart cities opportunity is for the likes of Cisco, MSFT, IBM, Google, etc.

With that said, I'm an Advisor to Austin-based Zpryme Research, and have been actively involved with both their thriving market research practice in this space, along with ETS, which is quickly evolving into a franchise-type concept that brings top thought leaders together to share and create new visions for the energy economy.

So, here's a last call for ETS15, and whether you just want to see what it's all about or register to attend, please check out the website.

I'll be quite visible throughout the event, and over the past few weeks I've also served as the Community Advocate to help promote ETS15. A key part of that has been developing content for the ETS Insights portal, and I've authored a number of articles there to give readers a sense of what to expect at the conference. For the record, you can review my posts here, and I hope you spend some time at the portal where you can see the rest of our content.

Smart Transportation - Another Sign of What's Coming at ETS15

Jon Arnold's Q&A with ETS Chairman, Andres Carvallo

ETS Q&A with Direct Energy

Two Doctors in the House for ETS15 - Dr. Goodenough and Dr. Amin

ETS Precon Day - Three More Reasons to Join us in Austin

ETS Q&A with Scott Jacobs, Generate Capital

Q&A with ETS President, Andrew Johnston

What Role will Utilities Play with Consumers and Smart Grid?

ETS Speaker Updates

ETS Preview - my Q&A with Zpryme's Jason Rodriguez

What to Expect at ETS15

ETS - More Than a Conference

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Verizon’s Virtual Communications Express – Big can be Beautiful too

I do my share of briefings with both vendors and service providers, and sometimes there’s a good storyline my followers may not be expecting to hear. My recent briefing with Verizon is one such case, as their VirtualCommunications Express – VCE – is showing how big carriers can compete in the SMB space when it comes to hosted VoIP.
Verizon is hardly alone among Tier 1 incumbents in feeling alienated by SMBs, as they historically have been low priority customers, often bound to their carrier by long-term contracts. This is not a recipe for success when real competition emerges, and many SMBs have happily jumped over to cablecos, CLECs and even OTTs. With the rise of VoIP, and more recently cloud-based variations, this giant market space has opened up big-time, putting all incumbents on the defensive.
While the SMB market is a huge Greenfield opportunity for competitors, this is very much now a protect-the-base scenario for incumbents. There’s a lot of business in play, and the likes of Verizon have to decide whether the SMB market is worth fighting for; and if so, they need a better game plan.
My briefing with Verizon- joined by Polycom folks as well – tells me that do have a better game plan now, and that’s what this post is about. As with any hosted VoIP offering, there are two pieces to consider – the product being sold, and the company behind the product - and I got a good sense of both in the lead-up to this post.
The product
VCE is Verizon’s hosted offering, and it’s more of a rich VoIP service than a UC platform, but that’s fine for what most SMBs need. Their point of reference is generally still TDM replacement, so the value proposition needs to be pretty telephony-centric. It has all the features you’d expect when migrating to VoIP, and they do a good job articulating the business value. The benchmark is TDM, so the flexibility of VoIP plays well with SMBs, along with the enhanced features they may not be expecting.
Good examples include auto attendant, multi-party calling – six way (they don’t call it conferencing, but that’s another topic), soft phone support, inter-office extension dialing, self-configured on-hold messaging, simultaneous ring, mobile integration (Apple and Android), and visual voicemail. Any and all of these are a step up from TDM, and Verizon seems to be hitting the right notes with what’s important for SMBs.
Being hosted strikes another chord, and they do a good job stressing the value of business continuity. I don’t think any SMB would question Verizon’s ability to do this, and on this count, their scale does give them a leg up on smaller competitors. On that note, they can comfortably cite the scale of their network and ability to provide carrier-class quality as built-in advantages that come with being an incumbent. The same can also be said for their technical support resources, allowing SMBs to get the same caliber of service as enterprise customers that Verizon caters so well to.
Stepping back – and bringing Polycom into the picture – VCE is being marketed as a communications solution, bringing together the quality of Verizon’s network, the richness of hosted VoIP, and the state of the art suite of IP phones from Polycom. In addition to a variety of SMB-friendly models in their VVX series – all of which support HD – they also offer two models of their SoundStation conferencing phones. Taken together, then, this is not a one-size-fits-all point solution, giving SMBs – and channel partners – a nice set of options to choose from.
Overall, by being hosted, VCE is pitched as a simple solution that’s easy to deploy, scale and use. This really is table stakes, so there’s nothing new there for the SMB market. The twist that I think will really appeal to SMBs is that no contract is required. This may be the norm for OTT VoIP services, but not from a Tier 1 carrier that can truly provide end-to-end QoS.
SMBs are conditioned to expect incumbents to require long, locked-in commitments, but VCE is a welcome about-face. To get carrier-grade quality and great phones without lock-in should be a no-brainer for a lot of SMBs, especially when considering the TCO advantages of hosted VoIP. Long-term, TCO claims may be dubious for cloud services, but SMBs aren’t thinking five years out when it comes to VoIP.
The company – and a happy customer
For the most part, VoIP is VoIP, and all hosted providers can offer something comparable to VCE. So, what would make an SMB stick with Verizon, or switch from someone else? While CLECs face the fundamental challenge of getting SMBs to know about them and trust them, everybody knows who Verizon is. However, most people associate the company with enterprise customers or mobile services. Fair enough, but they are also the incumbent telco for many SMBs, and that’s the market they are trying to serve with VCE. In that regard, there’s a big branding challenge in play here, as they need SMBs to view Verizon as being the right partner when it comes to telephony and communications services.
I’m not saying that Verizon has been totally successful, but they clearly have learned how to support SMBs, and that’s a story worth telling. To do that, I got a first-hand account by interviewing a VCE customer, NYC-based 163rd Street Improvement Council. This is a social services agency in the South Bronx, and truly is a great example of big meeting small with great results all around.
I spoke with Executive Director Cassandra Perry, and in many ways, her Council was a typical SMB Verizon customer. They were locked into a long-term contract, not getting much support, and were overpaying for services they didn’t need. On a more practical level, their telephony system was totally centralized, so if HO had a problem, none of the satellite offices had service either.
Their situation was a bit different, as their operations were largely wiped out by a fire, so they had to start fresh. Fortunately, this happened at a time when Verizon has become more customer-centric, and the results have been excellent. The turnaround started with their Verizon rep really listening to their needs, and from there it was clear that VCE was the right solution. The cloud-based offering keeps their costs down, ensures business continuity, and allows those satellite offices to stay in service regardless of what happens at HO.
More importantly was the sense that Cassandra’s needs were being heard. This was a big change from the historical relationship, and really took down the barrier between a small customer trying to get attention, and the impersonal nature of a big operator. Once those needs were addressed, there was also the peace of mind that comes from the reliability of a Tier 1 network, along with Verizon’s ability to troubleshoot their network and ensure service uptime.
This is key, as Cassandra noted they don’t have an IT department, and it was great to know that Verizon was even able to detect network problems before they hit her LAN. They weren’t getting this level of responsiveness before, and it’s a big reason why they’re happy with Verizon today.
Hope for incumbents and hope for SMBs
You don’t often come across a level playing field like this, and it’s great to see how an incumbent can align so well with an SMB customer. If incumbents like Verizon want to protect that customer base, they have to do business differently, and Cassandra’s story is a textbook example. It starts with listening to customers and developing an offering that speaks to their needs. VCE certainly seems built along those lines, and the rest really comes down to the relationships and ease of doing business.
When those are looked after, Verizon will keep its share of customers. Otherwise, when you hold customers to long-term contracts, sell them more than they need, not be responsive to service requests, limit their options for features and endpoints, etc., that’s when you live up to the bad reputation of an incumbent. Of course, if you really don’t care about SMBs, that’s an easy hand to play, but incumbents now know that SMBs are good business, and to hold off the competition, they need to do more of what Verizon is doing with VCE.

Note - this post has been sponsored by Verizon, but in-kind only. The content is solely mine, and no remuneration of any kind has been provided for this post.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Next Up - Energy Thought Summit, Austin - Smart Grid, Smart Cities, Smart Homes and More

In addition to my telecom/tech analyst focus, I've been wearing a similar hat in the smart grid space for many years. I co-founded the Smart Grid Summit, and stay current with the energy economy via my role as an Advisor to Zpryme Research, a boutique market research consultancy based in Austin.

ETS - Energy Thought Summit - has become their big event and is a great showcase for the top minds in energy/cleantech. I play a few roles with the event, and the 2015 edition starts next Tuesday. This won't be of interest to all my readers but if you want to know what smart looks like in this world - grid, cities, cars, homes, etc. - ETS15 is the place to be.

I've been writing an ongoing series of posts to promote the summit on the ETS Insights portal, and I urge you to check it out, along with the website for the event itself. In fact, my latest post is running now, so that might be a good starting point. Otherwise, I'll be getting there Monday night, and when the summit kicks off Tuesday morning, I won't be hard to find.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Complexity versus Simplicity in Making Collaboration Work

This is the second post in my new Collaboration Insights series, with the focus being how IT needs to balance the forces of simplicity and complexity in order to get things right with collaboration. My opening post set the stage by looking at the value of collaboration for “getting work done”, which is what employees really care the most about. They don’t care about the technology that drives UC, and that brings us to the natural tension between these two forces.
The challenge of complexity

Collaboration solutions are complex for a variety of reasons, and this creates challenges for both IT and end users. Whether called UC, collaboration or UCC, these platforms can be complex to deploy, and this will be a key consideration when choosing a collaboration vendor, especially those that do not have all the applications native to their solution. Many vendors only have some core pieces of their own, with other elements such as video or conferencing being bolted on from other vendors.
Aside from the high possibility of having a collaboration solution with a multi-vendor makeup, you have the additional challenge of integrating this with your network environment. In principal, having all the applications that drive collaboration under one roof is attractive, but these integration issues are real, and is a key reason why some enterprises are hesitant about deploying a collaboration solution. Vendors may promise a smooth deployment, but when problems arise, it’s easy to understand why enthusiasm for these offerings wanes.
There’s actually an even bigger challenge for enterprises that eschew partnering with a collaboration vendor, and instead choose to drive collaboration with their existing framework. Clearly, some enterprises do elect to take their own path, seeing vendor-based offerings as a risk rather than an opportunity – they’re too complex, no clear ROI, fuzzy business case, etc.
This actually creates greater complexity, since core collaboration applications managed internally are usually based in silos, spread across the organization. Whether it’s telephony, conferencing, video or even fax, each application tends to be managed as a point solution with dedicated resources, performance metrics and budgets.
We all know what’s possible with an integrated collaboration solution, and those results are almost impossible to achieve with this model. Without an overarching framework to integrate these standalone pieces, there is a different kind of complexity that truly limits collaboration in today’s sense of the word.
If that’s not enough, consider the challenges facing end users. Despite all the technical expertise of most IT groups, they struggle with the complexities of collaboration, both in deploying and managing the tools. Of course, their job doesn’t end there, as IT’s success with collaboration ultimately depends on end user adoption. No matter how many problems IT had to solve to seamlessly integrate collaboration applications on the network, their hard work will be for naught if the tools are too complex for end users.
You won’t have adoption problems with super users, but by design, collaboration is for everyone, and that’s how IT has to think in terms of the end result. This doesn’t just extend to the applications themselves – it includes the rules of engagement, usage policies, management controls, number of steps needed to use applications, etc. In other words, effective collaboration is about the total user experience being simple, and that’s not easy to deliver across a large organization.
The imperative of simplicity
While the reality may be complexity, the expectation should be simplicity. All of the above challenges are addressed when simplicity becomes the reality. You may not think it’s possible, especially if your organization is entrenched with silos that don’t talk to each other. Technology has a lot to do with that, and your reality may well be one where IT simply has higher priorities and resource constraints to effectively tackle the problems.
This is certainly a common theme in my research, and is a key reason why enterprises have embraced the cloud. While this seems like a panacea for everything, cloud-based collaboration solutions make a lot of sense. First off, they take the complexity off your plate by managing all the applications on a single platform. When considering purpose-built collaboration platforms, this stops being an infrastructure issue with the cloud, and instead becomes a service you consume, often referred to as UCaaS.
Think about what happens in that scenario. When you partner with vendors that have a deep understanding of both collaboration and the cloud, your IT challenges become simpler. In turn, you can focus downstream on the real success driver – end user adoption. Ideally, collaboration tools should be dead simple to use, but even if you need to school employees on just a few basic steps, that’s a far more attractive scenario that dealing them a complex hand from the start and expecting them to catch on.
Resolving the tension
So, how can IT find a middle ground to address the inherent complexity around collaboration, along with delivering the simplicity required to make it easy for employees, not to mention managing it internally? The long answer requires more in-depth posts, and for now, my message is to start at the beginning. This means recognizing the nature of this complexity and not being resigned to accept it.
Of course, this also depends on your vision for collaboration. If you’re only concerned with maintaining the status quo, complexity won’t get in the way of doing what you’ve always done. However, employees expect more now, and their jobs demand that they have better tools to be productive. The same holds for your customers, so there’s a lot at stake here. Hopefully, this is closer to your reality, and in that case, your vision needs to be about transforming how we work instead of staying the course.
The only way you’re going to get there is by tackling complexity head-on rather than letting it get in the way of collaboration. At the heart of this, you need to find ways to break down silos and leverage the cloud, and if those aren’t top-of-mind yet for your collaboration vision, I hope they are now.
For clarity, please note that this Collaboration Insights series is sponsored by Cisco Canada, but the content is my own, and by design is vendor-neutral.