Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Vacation Time - Back August 7

Gotta take a break every so often, and it's time now. We're off on a driving trip for a few days through New York state, with the first stop being Cooperstown. It's just part of the great American sports experience, and we're looking forward to going back.

We went there in 2007, and I did a full posting about that visit here. If you're a baseball fan I think you'll enjoy that. Having done the full treatment then, I don't plan on doing another big post this time around.

That said, I'll be off the blogs, and pretty much off everything until we get back August 7. If you really need to reach me, email is the way to go.

Monday, July 28, 2008

My Nokia N81 Review

I�ve been trialing Nokia smartphones via their Blogger Relations program for a couple of years now (developed by Andy Abramson and his agency Comunicano), and have been lucky enough to use a wide variety of great phones. Of course it�s a bit of a misnomer to call these things phones � they�ll all pretty smart devices in all kinds of ways. This review is for the N81, which I�ve had for ages, and as with the past few Nokia phones, I�m getting it second hand. My oldest son, Max, has been getting first crack lately with these phones, so once he�s done with it, it�s my turn and here we are. Being a 15 year old, his take on the phone is different from mine, although we generally feel the same way about the N81 � you can read his review here.

Overall, I�ll tell you that the N81 has been one of the least enjoyable phones that I�ve used in this program, and I�m happy to see it go. Part of this is getting spoiled by the phones I had just before this, like the N95. Many people regard the N95 as the best phone out there today, so it�s a hard act to follow. My N95 review was rather harsh, but it still has way more going for it than the N81. That�s understandable since this phone isn�t really in the same bracket, so it�s not that fair to compare.

Enough about that � on to the review. I�ll start with the things I liked, then move on to what didn�t work for me.

What I Liked About the N81

No doubt, the phone makes a great first impression. It�s got a sleek design, all black and shiny, and cradles nicely in your palm. Design is a real hallmark of Nokia, and this phone oozes high style. No sharp corners or edges � which should appeal equally to women and men.

It�s a slider phone, which is nice for protecting the keypad. As with other Nokia slider models, the design is easy to use, especially with one hand � left or right.

The screen is a decent size, and it�s quite easy to read the numbers in the display when dialing a call. Viewing photos or video is great � the images are quite clear unless you�re out and about in daylight � more about that shortly.

8 GB means tons of memory for a smartphone, and I�m sure it�s a major selling feature. I�m not a typical smartphone user, though, so all this memory was kind of lost on me. Of course, if I was in the market to buy a smartphone, and if putting my life on my phone was important to me, then sure, I�d be pretty excited about this.

In terms of using the N81 as a phone, the only plus I can really note would be that the calling features were pretty intuitive. Prime examples for me would be putting calls on hold or conferencing two callers at the same time. When these things happen, it�s easy to get flustered, but I found them easy to manage. When a second call comes in, you get a distinct beep, and then when you look at screen, it clearly states what�s going on, and it�s pretty easy to juggle the calls. Same for conferencing, which I found pretty handy. It�s especially nice when you�re talking away to someone, and the person you�re talking about happens to call you just then. Sure it�s right place � right time, but very efficient when you can connect both callers who you�ve got on the line to seamlessly create a three-way call.

I wasn�t much on using the advanced features of the phone, but found the carousel menu easy to navigate � once you know how. It was not intuitive at first, as I was used to the N95, which had a different sequence of prompts for exactly the same features. So, it took a while to figure out the way these worked on the N81, but once I got the hang of it, life got a lot easier.

I�m afraid to say that�s all I have for my likes. This phone has a lot of good qualities, but it was hard to see many more after weighing out all the frustrations that were part and parcel of the overall experience.

What I Didn�t Like About the N81

I�m not doing these in any particular order, but what comes to mind first is that there are too many buttons and embedded buttons within other buttons to deal with. This is a necessary compromise for having a larger screen, and I�m not sure I would come up with anything better. No doubt, once you get used to all the features, and master the micro-movements of your fingers to use them all, it�s a beautiful thing. For someone like Max, this stuff is first nature, but for me, it�s a major, major nuisance. I simply have no patience for all this complexity and just steer clear of these buttons altogether. Obviously, I�m not an ideal customer for this phone, so my rant here isn�t going to get much attention. However, I have no doubt that for a large portion of the general population this sentiment would be exactly the same. Of course that�s not Nokia�s market for the N81, but hey, I�m reviewing one, and that�s how it comes across to me.

Continuing on the button theme, another BIG frustration is how incredibly easy it is to inadvertently activate the music player. Max had downloaded some of his metal music (and I use that word liberally here!), and I can�t tell you how often these tunes kick in out of nowhere when I�m carrying around the phone. Seems like the slightest touch sets it off � and this happens equally often when the phone is in my hand or when it�s inside a pouch I carry all my stuff in � and I happen to pick up the pouch the wrong way � oooops! When this happens, I�m not sure which is more of a problem � how easy it is to turn the tunes on, or how hard it is to turn them off. Both are a problem, and both are reasons I�m happy to move on to another phone.

As with other Nokia phones, the keypad is solid � you have to be deliberate punching in the numbers � I like that aspect for sure. However, it�s not nearly as usable as the N95, where the keypads were slightly raised and rounded, if I recall correctly. These keypads are flat, so you have to look while you dial to be sure you�re hitting the right ones. Otherwise, the keypad area is just one flat space, so it�s hard to get your bearings since there�s no tactile point of reference moving from key to key. The real killer, though, is no backlighting � making it difficult if not impossible to use at night. I may be the only person out there who still actually dials phone numbers, and all I can say is that the N81 isn�t very phone-friendly at night.

Speaking of backlighting, there�s another related problem area for me. The screen display is well lit and easy to read � so long as you are indoors. In this case, the problem isn�t night time, it�s day time. I don�t recall the N95 having this problem, but the N81�s screen is downright unusable in daylight. When I�m walking outside with it, the screen is simply impossible to see unless you create some shade to minimize the glare. If you�re walking � which I presume is what most people are doing when they�re using their phones outside � you need to use your free hand to block the glare so you can see the screen. That solves one problem, but it creates another. Now I don�t have a free hand to dial a number. I realize this isn�t a problem for people who autodial all their calls, but sorry folks, if you need to use the keypad - whether it�s dialing or texting � you have to duck away to a shady spot. That solution works, but I don�t think it�s a very optimal end user experience � and just seems plain ridiculous to me.

On the topic of walking, I can�t imagine I�m the only one to have noticed how difficult it is to walk and talk with this phone, especially outdoors. I have yet to find the ideal, pinpoint location where my ear lines up just right so I can clearly hear the other party. In fact, as I look at the phone, I can�t even find the tiny hole where the sound comes out for phone calls. I know that�s what Bluetooth headsets were invented for, but I don�t use these things, and you should be able to walk and talk with your phone as is. I�ve had this problem with other N series phones, so I guess they�re just not designed to be used like conventional phones. To be fair, I think this is a common deficiency for all cell phones, and I just shake my head when I see countless people walking down busy, noisy streets yapping away on their phones. If their phones are anything like the N81, there�s no way they�re having a real conversation � it�s just impossible to hear the other person. I�ve long believed most of these are just pretend calls because talking on the phone while you�re walking about projects an image of self-importance, and the cell phone is simply a great prop to do that. I digress � and don�t get me started on that vein.

Let�s move on to the camera � I never thought you�d ask. For me, the camera is the real centerpiece of the phone, as I love taking photos, especially in-the-moment. As most Nokia watchers know, the N81 is a 2 megapixel camera, and it works just fine. The camera is on par with most of the other cell phones out there, but it�s a big step down from the 5 MP camera that came with the N95. I find this really bizarre for a phone with 8G memory. Storage isn�t a problem with the N81, so why scale down the camera so much? This phone is made for taking high res photos and fancy videos � strange, huh? To be fair, though, for most needs, the quality of photos with the N81 is perfectly fine � it�s just not as nice as the N95.

I�ve got a sidebar to share on the photo front that is without a doubt my most painful memory of this phone. One of my recent trips took me to New York, which included a tour of Yankee Stadium. I knew this would be my only chance ever to see this park, so it was a pretty big deal. This was a pretty cool tour that took us all over the park � the field, Monument Park, the dugout, the press box, etc. The weather was perfect and I took lots of pictures. Later, while reviewing the photos to pick the ones for my blog, I found that the camera�s memory � or operating system � or whatever � was scrambling the pictures. I�m not going to get into detail, but let�s just say I was only able to salvage a handful. I have no idea what happened or why, but I just have to roll my eyes. It seems that no matter what gadget I use, something goofy always happens that nobody can explain or understand. I�ve trialed quite a few Nokia phones, and have never had such a problem or such a disaster. All I can say is that when I needed this phone the most, it let me down in the biggest way possible. We all have our share of horror stories with technology, and this was a big one for me. I�ll never forgive this phone for messing up like that, and I haven�t even thought of using it as a camera since. For all I know, it may work perfectly fine, but it doesn�t matter � I can�t trust this phone for taking pictures any more. Now I simply take a digital camera when I travel, which means I use the N81 a lot less. It may be an extra gadget to carry around, but at least I know the photos will turn out. Enough � I hope you can feel my pain.

Not much else to talk about, but I�ll briefly touch on a couple of things. As with the other Nokias, the battery has a habit of dying too quickly without warning. I think we�ve all experienced this � the phone shows three bars of battery life, so you feel pretty safe for a bit. Then you take a call, and about two minutes later, the phone dies. Ugh. It seems like the phone lasts forever up at five or four bars, but after that it�s got like, zero juice. What can you do? Just keep it charged as much as possible, I guess.

Finally, I�ll end where I began � the overall design. I started off this review by saying how much I liked the sleek design and basic feel of the N81. No qualms there. However... there�s just something about the smoothness of this phone that makes it so darned slippery � and I�m being very polite here. I can�t tell you how many times this phone has slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor or the ground. The fun doesn�t stop there. When it hits the ground, the plastic backplate pops off and then the battery pops out and now I have an expensive mess on my hands. And this phone is a loaner, folks! I�ll gladly pay for any serious damages, and maybe it�s best that I pass it back to Nokia while it's still in one piece and we�ll just move on. I�m very conscious that this phone isn�t mine, but it just keeps slipping away at awkward times. Fortunately nothing has cracked or chipped � which is a testament to the quality of the components � but it just seems to me that a phone of this caliber shouldn�t fall to pieces so easily. You might be thinking I�m just clumsy or careless, but I�ve used lots of phones and never had a problem like this before. Maybe the next generation of the N81 will have a textured surface or a more grippable finish. That�s my two cents worth of free advice.

To conclude, if you�ve stuck with me this far, you�d be right to say I didn�t care much for this phone. It definitely has some great smartphone features, but I�m just not the right guy to get the most utility out of it. No doubt I was spoiled by the N95, and if I�d had the N81 first, my review would likely have been more positive. I just take them as they come, and I�m really trying to be objective here. I�ve tried hard to point out the good qualities, but no matter how you spin it, they�re outweighed by things that to me, should not be problems for smartphones. Sorry, Nokia, but that�s my main takeaway message here. Whether you think I�m being too critical or on the money, I�d love to hear your thoughts, especially from other N81 users.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Case for SIP Trunking - Marc Robins in No Jitter

Colleague and partner Marc Robins has written a nice piece about SIP trunking that ran in No Jitter earlier this week. I just got around to seeing it, and wanted to share it here for a few reasons.

First, SIP is a hot topic on many fronts, and Marc's article does a good job outlining SIP's ascendancy in the voice space. More importantly, he explains how VoIP and IP PBX solutions cannot reach their full potential running off legacy TDM infrastructure. This brings us to SIP trunking, a term that is widely used but poorly understood - which is a key reason for Marc's article. Overall, the article ties these pieces together, and I'm glad to see Marc include some discussion about the limitations of SIP. It's not perfect, and SIP has its share of detractors, but there's little doubt this is where the industry is going.

Second, No Jitter is the online voice of Techweb, which covers a lot of ground in enterprise communications, and pretty much ensures that Marc's article will be widely read. There is lots of good content there, including many familiar bloggers and analysts, so it's a great resource to keep on your radar.

Finally, given that Marc and I are partners in our IP Communications Insights venture, it's always good to support each other when we can. In addition to this activity, Marc serves as Executive Director of the SIP Forum, and his article goes on to explain how their SIPconnect initiative is aimed at addressing some of the challenges around SIP to help enterprises maximize the benefits of migrating to IP.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

New Content on Tech Target - Unified Communications

I recently started contributing to Tech Target, which is a pretty rich source of content for all things IT and enterprise communications.

One of the features I support on occasion is called Ask The Expert, where I provide brief replies to questions submitted by readers. It's not a forum for in-depth analysis, but it creates some dialog among a wide range of industry experts. My latest set of replies was just posted, and if you're interested, you can read my take on three topics - should I keep my PBX?, the merits of desktop video, and the case for hosted VoIP. These links just take you to the front door, and you need to regiser to access the content. It's free and doesn't take long, so this shouldn't be a deterrent.

Aside from getting to my comments, registering gets you into the portal which is much broader than my contribution, and that's really the message here. It's nice to see my stuff, but I'm also waving the flag a bit here for Tech Target.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Editorial Advisory Board Appointment - Business Trends Quarterly

Business Trends Quarterly is a pretty worthwhile publication, and is a great read for content from the analyst community across a wide range of business and technology issues. I've contributed to BTQ a few times and have posted about them before.

I was recently invited to join their Editorial Advisory Board, and this has now been posted on their website. It's a nice form of recognition, and it gives me a bit of a hand in guiding their future coverage of hot topics.

Social media is one of these, and I just submitted an article about this and will be posted soon on their website. I'm told they have a big website re-do coming shortly, so they're holding off publishing the new content until it's launched. If you don't follow BTQ, I'll be sure to post about this when it's ready.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Wireless Spectrum Auction Completed � Status Quo or Real Competition?

Canada�s AWS auction finally finished yesterday, and there should be no doubt about the perceived value of wireless spectrum. The final take was $4.25 billion � that�s a lot of free money for the federal government, and that raises an issue unto itself. How those proceeds are spent � or invested � will say a lot about what kind of a country Canada wants to be.

To me, it�s a philosophical issue as much as economic � these windfalls don�t come along often. It�s like getting a one-off giant tax refund that sets your head spinning about what to do with it. Pay off the credit card, take a family vacation, pay down the mortgage, fix up the house, top up the college fund? It�s not enough to retire on, but enough to make a significant dent in any of these noble causes. Any of these will improve your quality of life, so it�s a matter of figuring out what�s the highest priority.

It�s no different for the proceeds from this auction. If Canada wants to do the practical thing that no voter would oppose, they�ll just pay down the federal debt. If there�s some vision behind this, they�ll see this as an infrastructure issue to help Canada become more competitive and connected in the information economy. Of course, that�s what the auction is all about, as the winners will now get busy spending even more money building new networks or expanding/upgrading the ones they have already.

Fair enough, but what about people in remote or poor communities who cannot afford wireless and/or Internet services? This may not be a core issues for voters, but it sure represents a prime opportunity to take some leadership in terms of having some form of a national broadband policy. Countries like Korea and Sweden have gone down that road and the benefits are as clear as day. This is a rich topic that warrants more focus, and for that, I�m going to steer you to fellow local blogger Mark Goldberg, who is well versed, vocal and worth following. Mark also had a very insightful post this morning that puts a lot of this in perspective. Spend some time there - he'll be glad you did!

Back to the auction results. I posted about this recently and am not going to get into a long discussion � just wanted to touch on a few things that stood out.

- Not surprisingly, the incumbents � Bell, Rogers and Telus � did about 2/3 of the spending. This is pretty much in line with the amount of spectrum that was available for them to bid on. In the spirit of defending their turf, that�s to be expected, and validates how important any form of wireless spectrum is to them once it�s up for grabs.

- Globalive and Videotron were the next biggest spenders, but these two are on very different paths. Globalive has national ambitions, and I see them emerging as the fourth Canada-wide competitor � which is about all I think Canada can really support long-term. They have coverage pretty much everywhere but Quebec, and to address that, they�ll likely have to make a deal with Videotron, who is solely focused on Quebec. That will be an interesting scenario to watch.

- Notably absent was MTS/Allstream and the U.S. operators. MTS has had opportunities to become a national wireless player before, and however you want to spin that, it just doesn�t seem to be in the cards for them. I don't see this as a plus for their future.

More importantly � and to the question posed in the title of this post � what�s the score? Will this really give Canadians more choice, better services and lower prices? I think the status quo has largely been maintained, and that will hold if the new players � whether national or regional � simply play to the mass market and just focus on price or tweaking the everyday services � you know, voice 1.0. I could be glib and say that�s the Canadian way, but I�ve got to look for the silver lining here. As I�ve said before, there�s a great opportunity for new players to be disruptive and come to market straight out of the gate with voice 2.0 services.

Even better if it�s telco 2.0 or wireless 2.0 or web 2.0 or communications 2.0 � you get the idea. How about 3.0 � whatever that means? The main idea here is that they�re starting with a clean slate and can build the kind of networks to support market needs for the next 10 years. In my view, the incumbents are more motivated to acquire spectrum for defensive reasons. I think they will be as innovative as they need to be to keep this a 3 horse race - and no more than that.

Globalive can certainly make it a 4 horse race if they really take it to them, and that would help make this a more interesting market. Same goes for the regional players, especially Videotron. They have been very successful with VoIP in Quebec because they were disruptive, not just on price, but with faster speeds and creative bundling packages. I fully expect more of the same with them for wireless, so this will be another market to follow closely.

So, is it a brand new day for wireless in Canada? It�s too early to tell, but if it�s the same-old with both the operators and the federal government � we�ll just be getting Canada 1.0, and that�s a step backwards, not forward. Let�s hope not, and as subscribers, we have to vote with our wallets.

Consumer activism paid off around the recent iPhone launch here, and that�s a sign of hope that we have a say in this too. And believe me, the last thing the government wants to see after going through this exercise is the status quo. They�ll have a lot of �splainin� to do if that�s the end result, so their job is far from done.

While I'm not wanting to end on a down note, I can't help but ask the bigger question that's driving all this spending in the first place. If you build it, will they come? What if... what if the market actually is in equilibrium right now? The gold rush mentality today is based on the premise that wireless adoption lags other modern economies, so there's lots of upside to go yet.

Hmm. I'm not so sure. Adoption is lower here, no doubt - largely because prices are high, and the value just isn't there for everyone else. Sure, there are pockets where wireless service isn't available or good enough. By and large, however, I would argue that anyone who wants a cell phone these days in Canada has got one by now. Basic economics would dictate that if prices fall, demand will rise - so sure, new entrants will be fighting for the scraps, and they'll have to do it on price.

How on earth are these guys going to turn a profit after spending so much money to get into the game? I just don't get that. What if the mass market doesn't want 2.0 services? Then they all become Vonages, and the incumbents will cut prices until they all go away and we're back to square one again. Ugh. Let's hope not. All I can say is the faster the new players can bring 2.0 to the market, the better - it's our only hope for true competition.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Unified Communications - is it Happening? Sheryl and Ken Have the Answer Tonight

This is one of those one-thing-leads-to-another posts.

I'll start at the beginning, then work up the action item, and why you should tune in to Sheryl and Ken's Stardust Radio program - tonight at 9pm EST - to dispel the "myths" of Unified Communications.

Here we go...

On July 9, fellow industry watcher Carl Weinschenk had a thought-provoking post on his IT-Finance Connection portal about "the case against VoIP". That should get your attention, right?

Carl made some good points, but it wasn't totally convincing in my books. I followed up with a post to add my take - a bit more pro-VoIP - as well as to draw some additional attention to his post.

I also couched the topic in the broader context of Unified Communications, which in my mind is a bigger story. That, in turn, caught Ken Camp's attention. On Thursday, he had a lengthy, informative post on his blog about the whole UC topic, including a reference to my post. So, now Ken and Carl have two degrees of separation via the blogosphere.

Included in Ken's post is an invite to join him and his partner Sheryl on their radio program tonight at 9pm EST. I have a dinner tonight and may not be back in time, but I urge you to listen in, as I'm sure they'll have some very engaging dialog about UC. And if you can't, there will be a replay available, and no doubt Ken will be sharing that on his blog soon enough.

CODA - if you're interested in more of the dialog around this, Mitel's Simon Gwatkin left a notable comment on my blog post Thursday. Basically he says that lots of SMBs are showing serious interest in UC, but there's also a very real "wait and see" attitude out there for UC to become more proven.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

New Mobile VoIP Market Study Released

I was recently contacted by a U.K.-based consultancy called Technology Appraisals Ltd. about a new study that I'm pretty sure you'll want to learn more about.

I don't often talk about industry reports - especially those that aren't mine! - but mobile VoIP is such a happening market right now, and I don't think there's anything out there like this.

They've just released a report on the mobile VoIP landscape, and for anyone following this space, it's a pretty comprehensive overview of the players and the market pulse. The reports profiles 30 mobile VoIP providers/solutions, with many familiar names, such as Truphone, Talkster, Rebtel, Mino, fring, Jajah, Mobivox, Skype, iSkoot, EQO and PhoneGnome.

The report covers a lot of ground - it's 175 pages (and is reasonably priced) - with profiles of all these providers, as well as a section explaining all the various mobile VoIP solutions, and country-by-country tariff comparison tables to illustrate the varying range of mobile telephony rates.

The market researcher in me feels obliged to explain that the study is not a strategic analysis of the space, and is not based on primary research or direct interviews with these providers or their customers. If that's what you have in mind, then let's talk! I'm sure we could work something out along with the folks at Technology Appraisals.

That said, for a space that is so du jour, it's a great snapshot of the current market environment. I could see this report being of value to anyone looking to enter the mobile VoIP space or pitch value-added apps to the providers, as well as investors looking for companies to get behind or possibly acquire.

To learn more, I've provided some links to the study in this post, but would also be happy to put you in touch with Alan Paton, the primary author behind the study.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How to Stay Productive on the Road

Andy Abramson is widely regarded as one of the top bloggers in our space, and I cite him regularly. He's on the road again, this time on a two week European tour of duty, and his blog provides a great chronicle of the sights, sounds and tastes he's experiencing.

Aside from the travelogue posts, I really want to share one of his posts from Monday, which I only just now had a chance to review. For anyone who travels on a regular basis, his Global Nomad post is a must-read companion guide for staying productive. Andy's been living this life quite a while and is a great test case for anyone who wants or needs to use all the tools.

While many of the companies he cites are clients, that's besides the point. They're clients for a good reason. Andy lives the life they're catering to, so aside from helping them become more successful in the marketplace, he truly relies on their products/services for his everyday needs.

All I can say is read it for yourself, and I guarantee that if you travel regularly, you'll be nodding your head as you go through the list of all the great apps and services he's living and dying by. And I'm sure you'll you find a few new ones, which is really the payoff here. Andy sees it all, and he uses it all, so if you want to shorten the learning curve on how to be a global nomad, this is the post for you.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Social Media Article in Unified Communications Connection News

I've been quite busy writing recently on a number of fronts, and this is one I think you'll enjoy - not just for my thoughts, but all the other good content that's there as well.

A couple of months back, I was approached to contribute to Tech Target's Ask the Expert series, and I've done a few of these for them. I'm actually doing a few more for them now, and will post about them in due course.

Since then, they've bumped me up a bit and have also asked me to contribute when I can to their In The Know columns. My first article focuses on social media and how enterprises should be looking at this phenomonon. It's a great topic, and I hope to revisit it in future columns.

Aside from my article, there's lots of other good content in their current UC Connections newsletter. You can peruse it all here as well as sign on for RSS feeds, which is a great way to stay on top of this topic. Tech Target covers many other IT and network-related topics on their portal, so you may want to explore things a bit further.

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Service Provider Views - VoIP in the Tier 2/3 Market

My latest Service Provider Views column is running now on TMCnet. It's the first segment of a two part Q&A interview with John Macario, and our focus is on the Tier 2/Tier 3 carrier market. His firm, Savatar, provides some leading edge research on the SMB market, and he shares his insights on how these carriers are going to market with both their residential and SMB customers.

Lots to talk about - that's why it's a two part interview. You can read Part 1 here, and we'll have the second segment later this month. Hope you enjoy it.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

IT in Canada Portal - New UC Post

Toronto colleague Michael O'Neil has been honing his IT in Canada portal for a few months now, and it's coming along nicely.

The portal covers a lot of ground and there's some very good content, focused primarily on IT-related issues. I've been recently added to the "Expert Ring" of contributors to the IT Forum Exchange, which is some nice local recognition. The Forum has several threads, which really are microsites covering a whole range of topics, and my most recent post is up there now, under the Unified Communications banner.

It's titled "Unified Communications - What's the Focus?", and I'm spelling this out to make it easier to find. Unfortunately, the portal only provides links to the home page - the design is still clunky, but the content is worth putting up with for a bit of extra work to find it.

I hope you enjoy the post, and I'll be contributing there on a fairly regular basis. I'm just one of many contributors, however, so what I really want you to do is discover the portal and see for yourself. And then, please tell me what you think, as Michael is always open for new ideas.

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Jeff Pulver - Driving Public Policy Support for VoIP

On Friday, Jeff Pulver had a very welcome post about some unifying efforts underway to create a national framework policy to support VoIP in the U.S.

Jeff has long been active on the public policy front through the VON Coalition, which he founded in 1996. Given all the uncertainty around Pulvermedia these days, it's not clear to me what role Jeff continues to play with the VON Coalition, which operates under its own steam as a non-profit, member supported organization.

Regardless, Jeff is the most public voice for the coalition, and as a blogger, I'm doing my part to get the word out and let you know that they're busy supporting some important work. As Jeff's post notes, they are working alongside several other industry groups, with a common goal to ensure that VoIP gets the regulatory support it needs to remain a vital force of change that benefits consumers and the communications sector as a whole.

There's no call to action here for readers, but it's certainly an important initiative, and now you know. By all means, I'm sure Jeff would love to hear from you if want to get behind this in some way.

As a sidebar, the underlying story here is that Jeff hasn't posted much about VoIP in a while, and it's great to see him doing so! Time will tell if this is a sign of where Jeff is going post-VON, but regardless, let's hope this initiative for a national framework gets a good hearing in the courts.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Is VoIP Really Happening?

I've cited Carl Weinschenk's IT-Finance Connection portal a few times, and his latest post on Wednesday caught my eye. Titled "The Case Against VoIP", Carl asks some basic, but important questions that help explain why VoIP hasn't yet taken over the world - at least in the business market.

His focus is on IT departments and the things they need to take into account when considering VoIP. While his points are basic, they are critical elements and stark reminders that VoIP isn't necessarily for everyone. There are lots of ways to spin this logic, of course. In his first point, Carl argues that as the cost of TDM service has dropped, telecom costs may not be that much cheaper with VoIP, so cost savings is not the driver it was a few years ago.

Maybe so, but Carl doesn't parse out the issue enough to contrast the service with the equipment. First generation IP phones for VoIP were orders of magnitude more expensive than legacy desk phones, and early on that was a real deal-killer. Now, the cost of the phones is pretty much on par, so on that count, VoIP can save you money. There are many other aspects of the TCO equation of course, but I'll leave it at that for now.

While I do agree with Carl's overall conclusion: "There are many organizations that can get by quite nicely without VoIP" - I'd have to say there many other factors beyond everyday IT-level issues to really make the right decision. It's hard to put an ROI metric on productivity, and when companies start falling hard for the UC pitch, VoIP is a given, as it becomes part of much bigger story line.

Anyhow, stepping back, Carl isn't the only one out there raising questions around VoIP's lack of mainstream breakthrough, and that's why I'm writing about this. Garrett Smith had a post last week along these lines, and it will lead you to some other posts that make for interesting reading.

As big a fan of VoIP that I am, Carl's premise puzzles me too, which of course means you have to be careful listening to what the vendors tell you. There's tons of growth and good news stories out there - no doubt - but whether it's enteprise, SMB or residential, VoIP still has low market share. In the consumer market, if you take the cablecos and triple play bundles away, VoIP is in the low single digits for market share, and we all know how successful Vonage has been!

Ike Elliott has a great post about that from earlier this week, btw. I'm putting cable aside in this case because their success with VoIP comes pretty much as part of the bundle. They wouldn't be putting up these kind of numbers if they sold it as a standalone service.

Without delving too much further into the prospects for consumer VoIP, I will say that the future is much brighter in the mobility world. Michael Arrington had a nice post today on TechCrunch about how well Truphone's application on the new iPhone is working for VoIP. Now, that's a growth story, and am sure I'll be posting more about that soon.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Consumers Speak - Rogers Listens

Wow - chalk one up for free speech and the power of the Internet! Just before the official launch of the iPhone in Canada, Rogers has caved to the mounting consumer backlash and revamped their price plans.

I think it's a great story showing how well people can rally about something they really care about. The iPhone is such a must-have gadget, especially here in Canada where we've been watching our U.S. neighbors lap it up in no time. Clearly Rogers realized it has mis-judged market sentiment and is making some concessions to avoid losing face altogether. Today's Globe & Mail has a good piece about this, and refers to other well-known Rogers gaffes - such as their "negative billing option" - which they had to go back on once they realized how strongly the market felt about it. As I've said before, they behave like this because they can, but when consumers speak with a strong unified voice, they simply had to do something. Once again, the online versions of articles in the Globe are the best barometers of Main Street - with almost 200 reader comments, this is a pretty strong validation that Rogers came half-way in a nick of time.

I say half-way, of course, because while the rate plans are more competitive, they still won't follow the U.S. model of unlimited usage pricing plans. And you still have to take out a 3 year contract to get the phone, so why lock them in from the start with the best possible plan?

I'm sure unlimited usage is the last straw for them, and I can see why they're holding back. No doubt, once we have new competitors following the spectrum auction, all the mobile operators will have to be more price competitive. I'm sure Rogers is holding unlimited as their trump card for when that time comes. For now, though, the plans are atractive enough that the iPhone will have a healthy debut, but probably not as strong as it could have been.

While we're on the topic of pricing plans, I'll point you to a nice post that Mark Evans wrote yesterday comparing pricing plans in various countries. There's a great comparison chart showing just how out of line Canada's pricing plans are for the iPhone.

Finally, I can't help but mention one other factor that may be at work here. Just after Rogers first announced its pricing plans last week, Bell countered with much more attractive pricing to go with its upcoming launch of the very hot Samsung Instinct smartphone. This is the closest Bell can come to the iPhone, and for people looking an alternative, this is a pretty good choice. Not only is the phone comparable feature-wise, with better pricing options, but they also offer 2 year, 1 year and no contract deals. I didn't see any takeup on this news, and Rogers cannot afford to ignore the competitors in its own back yard. Bell may still be in lame duck mode until the privatization deal closes, but Bell Mobility is the #2 mobile provider and is in a great position to offer something more interesting to counter Rogers. In mind view, this had to have played a role in Rogers's thinking around today's news.

Sure will be interesting to see how busy the Rogers stores will be tomorrow.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Alltop - My Blog Added to VoIP Blogs Category

Many of you know Guy Kawasaki, and if you don't, you should. He's on my blog roll and I've blogged about him a few times. Guy always has a lot of interesting things on the go - and his books are highly recommended. The latest thing I've come across that he's involved with is Alltop.

What is it? Well, it's another blog aggregation site - in this case, "all the top" blogs and news sources for a variety of categories. Their team picks what they feel are the top blogs in each category, and each is featured in a microsite. For each of the blogs, there's a running feed of the most recent posts. This makes it a pretty convenient place to get all the latest from the top sources within a given topic. Of course the quality is only as good as the blogs they've chosen, but that's no different from any of the other industry blog lists out there.

There are dozens of categories at Alltop, and VoIP is one of them. Alltop launched in March, and they've been adding all kinds of topics, including other topics of interest to me, such as Canada, Hockey and Baseball. I've got a fair bit of exploring to do here - and am sure you'll enjoy poking around too.

The Alltop VoIP microsite launched last week, and I'm pleased to say that my blog has been included. Thanks Guy! It's great to be in this grouping, and there are lots of familiar and worthy blogs there as well, including Andy Abramson, Alec Saunders, Garrett Smith, Tom Keating, Skype Journal, Jajah Blog, along with news sites like VoIP News and Fierce VoIP.

So, if you're not RSS'g these blogs already, Alltop's VoIP site is a pretty good Plan B. Because it's so new I expect to see other blogs added, and if Alltop starts drawing good traffic and feedback, perhaps they'll add some other telecom/tech topics. They do have sites for Gadgets, Social Media and Mobile, so they are on this track already, and perhaps others are in the works. Check it out!

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Globalive Set to Enter Canadian Wireless Market - It's the Network, Stupid!

I'm not following the AWS auction blow-by-blow, but it's pretty clear at this point that Globalive is set to emerge as the big winner - so to speak. The federal government stands to earn a huge windfall - over $4 billion - for auctioning off the spectrum licenses - and I have no idea what they're going to do with all this loot.

Anyhow, once the dust settles, it looks like Canada will get a few new regional wireless operators, such as Shaw in the West, Videotron in Quebec and Bragg in the Maritimes. I don't think the market can support much more than that, as Manitoba and Saskatchewan already have local wireless operators of their own.

Aside from Globalive, there's one other bidder who will have quasi-national coverage - DAVE- Data, Audio Visual Enterprises. It's a venture between John Bitove (satellite radio) and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. To me, they're a real wild card since they don't have any operating experience in this space, and it's a new, unproven venture.

So, that leaves us with Globalive, which is a pretty interesting company. They are poised to come out of this with spectrum to cover all of Canada except Quebec, which about as close as anyone is going to get up here. For sake of transparency, I will say that I have done work on and off for Globalive, but nothing connected to wireless, so there's no hidden agenda here.

I can't think of anything like Globalive up here, but telecom is definitely their business. For a variety of reasons, they are well positioned - and financed - for becoming a wireless player, and that's what matters. If you want to delve more into the details, you'll get some of it from their website, but today's wireless story in the Globe & Mail is a better place to get yourself up to speed.

For a variety of other reasons, I've also been skeptical that the Canadian market can support another national provider. We used to have four players, and now we're down to three. The costs of entry, of course are huge, and it's hard to see how anyone can hang in long enough to recoup their investment for spectrum and network buildout. Sure, wireless penetration is on the low side here compared to other developed country, and margins remain high. However, by the time new players come to market - which could be as long as two years - we'll pretty much all be mobile users, so the new business is going to have to come at someone else's expense.

So, why on earth would anybody want to do this? As the title of this post says --- it's the network, stupid. Here's what I think. I really can't see how anybody can make money long term up here being a new entry by just providing service in the mobile space. There just aren't enough subscribers to go around. However...

There are a few factors that make Globalive's situation unique, and may give them enough of an edge that will make this viable. Consider the following:

- They're building a network from scratch, and yes, this will be very costly. However, they'll be building it for today's market, which is all about video and data - not voice. It's a bit like fiber vs. DSL. Presumably, Globalive will be building a network around the applications that make money and sell smartphones. As good as the existing wireless networks are in Canada, they were not built this way, and will likely have to do some upgrading to keep pace once Globalive comes to market. The way I see it, whenever they are ready, Globalive should have the most advanced network, which should give them a nice window to capture their first round of subscribers.

- Globalive's backers have a LOT of experience with large scale mobile operations on an international scale. That means they have experience with spectrum auctions and they must have leverage with vendors that Canadian operators probably don't have - such as Alcatel-Lucent. In other words, they will likely be able to build their network cheaper than other new entrants, which will mean a faster payback on their investment. Because they have so much global expertise, they may very well be able to partner with major vendors and get financing or preferable terms. In other words, they may not have to lay out so much money, which would put them in a very good position to enter the market. Oh - and by extension, the same goes for handset vendors, which means they should be very competitive against the other operators in terms of both device selection and pricing.

- Globalive already has an established telecom operator in its stable - Yak. So there is some brand presence already, and ramping this up into a mobile carrier would really be a matter of scale.

- They also have several other telecom companies in their stable, so there's a built-in pool from which to draw for both talent and developers. Because they'll be coming to market with a state of the art network, Globalive will have a clean slate to truly become a 2.0 type of provider. This is not really a made-in-Canada business model, and Globalive brings an international mindset which I think will give them an edge for bringing innovative services to market. I'd be very surprised to see them simply copying what the incumbents are offering.

- Last but not least, as I say in the title of this post - it's the network, stupid. I'm thinking differently now about Globalive, and believe it's the network that's going to make them successful - not the services. We all know why the Vonages of the world are doomed - it's almost impossible to make a go when you don't have the network. Aside from all the advantages discussed already, another factor in Globalive's favor is that networks are cheaper to build today than in the cellular world. This is still the biggest barrier to entry, but it's not as high as it used to be, and Globalive has deep pockets. Once you get past that hurdle, you will be on an equal playing field with the incumbents. At that point, all bets are off as far as I'm concerned. Sure, the incumbents will have the subscribers and established brands, but the pressure will really be on them to defend their territory. Globalive won't be coming to market to compete on price - they'll be doing it with cool services that make smartphones worth every penny. If they hit the market with really innovative services, I think they'll give the incumbents a good run for their money. Looking at it this way, it really is about the network. Once that big barrier falls away, we'll see how well the incumbents will be able to compete with some real competition. In my mind, it's a bit like calling your bluff. If Globalive comes to market with the best network around, things could get very interesting.

- Oh - here's another reason why I think the network is the key to making Globalive a potential winner. I'm pretty sure they will end up being the only real rival to the 3 incumbents in terms of market coverage. They may choose to stay out of Quebec, or simply partner with someone like Videotron there, which would give them Canada-wide service. Either way, Globalive will be a natural magnet for regional carriers looking to expand coverage or MVNOs seeking to capture some niche markets.It's hard imagine anyone else having the means or motivation to build yet another national network once all the licenses are spoken for. MVNOs have had a hard time succeeding anywhere, but hey - if Globalive has a really great network, they will be able to support a much more interesting range of services than what MVNOs are offering today. So, if they were thinking along these lines, they will overengineer their network to provide enough capacity to accommodate over the top providers. This will generate more revenues, with hardly any additional expense, which in turn will accelerate their ROI. Nothing wrong with that.

I still have a lot of reservations about how successful any new entries will be to our wireless market. Now that I look at where Globalive stands today, I'm a lot more optimistic about their chances. The odds are still long, but Globalive brings a lot to the table, and I really don't see how anybody else comes close.

The big question now becomes how will the incumbents respond? If they still feel this will remain a cozy club of three and stand pat, I think they will be in trouble if my view of Globalive is on target. What if they don't upgrade their networks? What if they don't innovate with new services and just try to compete on price? Just look at the way Rogers is coming to market with the iPhone. No way this tactic is going to work once Globalive comes to town, especially if they're GSM.

Pretty interesting scenarios to say the least. Y'know, this Globalive thing might just work. Thoughts???

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Sangoma Acquires Paraxip - More Canadian Consolidation

The Canadian tech/telecom vendor space has been busy of late. Last week, Ottawa-based IPTV middleware vendor Espial announced its acquisition of Kasenna.

Yesterday, Toronto-based Sangoma Technologies acquired Montreal-based Paraxip Technologies. Like Espial, it's a small deal between small companies - $4.8 million - but another nice example of low level industry consolidation.

I'm familiar with both companies, and have done work with Sangoma as a client. Sangoma has actually been around over 20 years, which is pretty rare for Canadian tech companies. So, they're far from being a startup, but are still pretty small - but they are publicly traded.

Sangoma is well regarded in the Open Source community as a leading provider of PCI cards for VoIP solutions. They compete head-on with Digium, and have many fans in their corner who feel they have a superior product. Paraxip is more of a software vendor that enables telephony connectivity for computers, and have a strong focus on contact centers, including integration with both Genesys and Microsoft Speech Server.

Overall, it looks like a good fit with both hardware and software elements in a single offering. The companies announced their own product integration last year, so they've already figured out how to work together.

It's not a huge deal, but I think it's a good deal, especially by making two Canadian companies stronger as one. It strengthens Sangoma's position by making them more of a complete solution provider for Open Source VoIP and the contact center market. As Open Source gains momentum for Unified Communications solutions, things could get interesting, as this deal gives Sangoma more capability to be positioned in this space, which would take them up a notch or two in the food chain.

Not much downside here, really, and I'm glad to see Sangoma making a move to become bigger, stronger and better.

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Monday, July 7, 2008

June Media Roundup

Not sure why I didn't do this sooner, but I've been wanting to post a monthly roundup of my recent media citings. A number of people keep mentioning articles where they see me cited, and sometimes I'm not even aware of them.

I try my best to post media citings in the right column of this blog page, but also thought it might be helpful to summarize recent citings in one post. June was a particularly busy month for being quoted in the tech/telecom media, as I was included in stories in both the U.S. and Canada, along with a TV appearance.

Business Week - "Home Phone Service for $10 a Month?"

BNN TV - RIM's Earnings/Outlook for Smartphones

ITBusiness.ca - "Cisco's Former Number Two Becomes Avaya's Number One"

ComputerWeekly.com - "VoIP Supplier Guide Essentials"

Macworld - "Wireless Broadband to Drive iPhone 3G Sales"

U.S. News & World Report - "Look Out, Vonage. Here Comes magicJack"

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Friday, July 4, 2008

IP Convergence TV Update

I haven't blogged much about the IP Convergence TV portal lately, but it's time. Our latest update has just gone live, and as usual, there's lots of new and interesting content.

As portal Editor, my role is to keep the content honest and of a high caliber. I'd like to think I'm doing my part as we continue to get great feedback about the portal and traffic continues to be healthy.

So, I'd just like to draw your attention to the new content in our latest update.

We have two Guest Opinion pieces, and I think you'll really enjoy their personal views on convergence technologies. They're from new voices who may be familiar to you, and if not, I hope they will be soon - Garrett Smith and Brady Gilchrist.

On the video front, we have 3 interviews, conducted at recent industy events in Europe. Two focus on the state of IMS - Joe McGarvey of Current Analysis, and Peter Galyas of Tilgin. We also have Intel's John Woodget talking about what's driving WiMax now and how it compares to competing wireless technologies like 4G and LTE.

Finally, we have a really great primer article from Dickel Sooriah of Comverse on femtocells. It's a very timely resource for a technology that's becoming pretty central for FMC, especially SIP-based services.

I should also add that the Convergence Blog serves as my own voice for IPCTV. Sometimes I write exclusive content there, and sometimes I re-post relevant content from this blog. If there's something you'd like to see me blog about there, I'd love to hear from you.

I hope you enjoy the latest content, and to stay up to date with us, it's real easy to sign up for an RSS feed. Just look for it on the ride side of the home page.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rogers Backlash on iPhone Pricing

Well, in the wake of Canada Day, you'd think we'd be feeling all good about ourselves. Perfect time to get excited about the iPhone, which has finally come to Canada - legally, that is.

What a golden opportunity for Rogers to bring the gift that keeps giving and endear themselves to the wireless digerati.

We sure have a strange market up here for wireless, not to mention a wildly successful wireless spectrum auction that has been brought in some $4 billion for the government. Can't get enough of a good thing, I guess.

Because Rogers holds so many trump cards, they've chosen to come to market with some pretty expensive and restrictive pricing plans, and the pushback from consumers is really starting to kick in. I'm not going to get into the details, but their pricing plans are in stark contrast to the U.S., and I don't think there has ever been an instance that so baldly shows how different our market is here, and how much more people have to spend to get wireless services.

By nature, we're a polite people and don't complain too much or too loudly. That's why I'm posting about this, especially for those of you not that familiar with the Canadian telecom market. Let's just say that a lot of consumers are speaking out, and in true Web 2.0 fashion are self-organizing, and using all the tools. It's a great example of Internet democracy in action, and it will be interesting to watch how Rogers reacts.

I haven't blogged about this yet, but you can get my take in one of the articles that just ran this morning.

There's lots more out there of course, and I'll steer you next to a feature piece that ran in today's Globe & Mail. It covers the ground pretty well, but what I love the most about online versions of newspaper articles is the commentary from readers. As of this moment, there are 135 comments, and it's a great way to take the pulse of Canadians. Most of them are slamming Rogers, but there are also pro-Rogers voices, explaining that it's a free market, and they have every right to maximize their revenues and profits. After all, they took the risk, so they should gain the rewards. I suppose, but there's not a lot of risk here really, right?

On the blogger front, I'd also urge you to review Kevin Restivo's recent posts - he's been following this pretty closely.

Of particular interest on his latest post is a link to a online petition that has been getting lots of grass roots support. The Web works in strange ways, folks, and his link takes you to a URL that is too obscene to mention here, and you get the "Forbidden" 403 code, so you won't have any luck finding it. I think Kevin's intent was to steer to you to a different website, more appropriately titled "Ruinediphone.com". That makes more sense, but guess what - that URL also comes up "Forbidden" 403. Very interesting, huh? You'd think we were in China, where dissent is not often tolerated. I suspect this website is a bona fide place to rant and rally around a bone fide issue. Am I being blocked from this site because I happen to be a Rogers broadband subscriber? There's a scary thought, huh.

A sidebar thought that I can't figure out. If this website has been set up to organize Canadians against these pricing practices, why is it a .com URL, and not a .ca URL? Is it just me?

To continue this journey, it's always good to pick up on what Mark Evans has to say, and Jim Courtney's take on Skype Journal.

Bottom line - Rogers is behaving as one would expect an oligopoly to behave, and in response, it will mobilize our desire to see a more competitive market. The consumer will ultimately decide and will show Rogers just how much they really want the iPhone. Rogers may take the hint and follow Apple's footsteps by lowering prices, or they may hold their ground and exploit this window where they're the only game in town.

Based on a sample of one, my oldest son Max has gone back to using an iPhone, but I can't print here what he thinks of what Rogers is doing. Let's just say a lot of Canadians are seeing red right now, and I'm not talking about our flag or the Rogers logo.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Espial Acquires Kasenna

Here's a noteworthy item that came out on Canada Day. In short, one IPTV middleware company has acquired another IPTV middleware company. It's not a huge story or a huge deal, but still of interest to anyone following this space.

The players involved are Ottawa-based Espial Group and California-based Kassena. It's a very small deal dollar-wise - not even $10 million - but there are a few aspects worth commenting on.

First, it's a Canadian story. I've followed Espial for quite some time, and they went public up here on the TSX a little over a year ago.

Second, you don't often see Canadian companies acquiring U.S. companies in the IP world. Mitel's acquisition of Inter-Tel last year was another example, but on a much larger scale. Aside from not often seeing these kinds of deals, you may well not have heard about it either. In addition to this being a really small deal, the timing is a bit odd. Falling on Canada Day, it didn't really get picked up until today. And coming into the July 4 break, it may not register much in the U.S. this week either. Is it possible the timing was intentional so as not to attract much attention? I'm not close enough to either company to speculate, but I welcome your thoughts.

More importantly, the story is worth noting as a sign of low-level consolidation in the IPTV market, which is taking longer to hit its stride than most of us have expected. This is a natural stage for any emerging sector, and together these companies should be stronger. It's always tough to gauge synergies among like companies, especially when they are of comparable size.

The real problem here is that the IPTV space - especially middleware - remains fragmented, with no dominant player. Well, they're all competing against Microsoft - that's a given - but otherwise, they're all pretty small. As a result, the longer the market takes to mature, the harder it is for the indies to hang in for the payoff. At this stage of the game, revenues are hard to come by, and options for toughing it out another quarter or two are limited. That would explain why the size of this deal is so small. Better to take a small buy-out now than risk getting nothing later on.

I've always liked Espial, and hope this deal takes them to another level. If it does, I'm sure we'll see other roll-ups as the other middleware vendors look for ways to keep pace. I doubt this will be a game-changer for Microsoft, but it sure gives Espial more runway now to ramp up and try to emerge as a leader among the indies.

All I can do here is draw some home-grown attention to the news and hope they can make this work. Go Canada!

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Red Sox: Mid-Season Thoughts - Tampa Who?

Well, it's Canada Day - whoo hoo! Am just getting this post done and then off for the day to enjoy our birthday.

What could be more appropriate than navel-gazing about my Red Sox? I dunno. Well, I planned to post this before the Tampa series in anticipation of a W last night - which would have put us back in first place. That's a much better vantage point for reflecting on the season so far, but come to think of it - now that we're 1.5 games out of first - this is a more appropriate place since 2008 has not been the walk in the park we had in 2007.

So, what's different this year? The team's record is about the same as last year at this point, but in 2007, the Yankees were all but buried and we were miles ahead in first. We were 10.5 games ahead of everyone a year ago today! Hmmm.

A few items from last night's loss go a long way to explaining why the Sox have been losing games they should be winning...

- giving up LOTS of walks and runs with 2 outs

- Chris Smith loading the bases in the 8th on 12 pitches - wow

- the Tampa Bay crowd cheering more loudly for the Rays than the Sox - when was the last time that happened?

- Lugo coming up with tying run at 3rd in the 9th with 2 outs - gee, just the guy you want. Actually Sean Casey was going to pinch hit, but the plans changed. To Lugo's credit, he ran the count full, but, well - clutch hitting isn't quite his thing...

- as a team, they continue to struggle on the road - at this time last year, they actually had more road wins than at home

- the offence waiting too late in the game to wake up - yet again, they almost pulled it out in the dying moments, but those get to be long odds when you're playing with a less-than-full lineup

- losing yet another 1 run game - 3rd loss in a row by a run

Overall, though, the Sox are in pretty good shape, but there's more competition this year. They were so-so for interleague play, compared to last year when they were dominant. As usual, they live and die as a team. When they're all hitting, the Sox are the best team in baseball. But there are lots of nights when they look very ordinary and nobody can hit the ball. Lately, they've been sitting quiet until the late innings, but that's not the way to win over a long season.

Anyhow, there are lots of bright spots to build our hopes for repeating upon....

- Dice K seems to be a bona fide top starter. He's been more effective this year, while Beckett has not gotten run support. Their respective records are basically the reverse of last year, where Beckett was pretty much unbeatbable. Dice K seems to have a knack of pitching poorly but not giving up runs, but in the crunch, I'd still go with Beckett.

- Dustin the Destroyah has been the hottest hitter in baseball lately and is finally hitting a great stride - they really need that

- Manny, Youklis and Lowell are all a bit off from last year, but still being very productive, esp without Ortiz

- JD Drew is no longer JD Who - looks like he's gotten himself together and made the adjustments to AL pitching. No doubt he's been the biggest turnaround for the Sox and that's a must-have with Papi being out of service for the foreseeable future.

- the bench is bit deeper this year - a bit like the Celtics - but still could be stronger. Sean Casey is a great addition, for both his bat and glove.

- starting rotation has great balance between experience and youth as well as types of pitchers. They've adapted very well without Schilling, and I don't think he'll be back. I think the starters were more effective as a group last year, but this battery is only going to get better as the young guys mature. I think Lester is for real, but Bucholz and of course Masterson are still a year away.

- Bartolo Colon is another great dark horse move, and he could turn out to be very valuable down the stretch. I would love to see him be switched out into a middle/late inning reliever - that's where the Sox are weakest and could really use his strong arm.

So, what's not to like? A few things...

- Lugo. Did I say Lugo? In case you missed it - Lugo. Why is it when they acquire NL shortstops they bomb here, but then they blossom again on their next teams? Renteria and Cabrera come to mind here. Lugo - I expected more from him - we all did. We can live with a weak bat in this lineup, but not when his defence is this bad. This would be my #1 priority for making a move. They really have no other notable holes in the lineup.

- Timlin - love the guy, but I really think Mike's time is up. He has been completely ineffective and don't see how this will change. Maybe his DL stint is the answer - we'll see. I'd love to see him pitch well again, but am not optimistic.

- Okijama - not so ok dokey. I can't tell if hitters have finally figured him out, or if he's lacking confidence. He's been a real liability lately, allowing almost all his runners to score. That's been costing us games we would have won last year.

- Ellsbury - a great talent, no doubt. Don't think the Sox have ever had a package like this, and he's definitely earning his keep running the bases. Problem is his lack of hitting and getting on base. Like Johnny Damon, his primary value is being the dangerous leadoff hitter. When he gets on base, things happen and the offence really flows from there. I'll still take him over Crisp any day, and of course he'll only improve with time. But for now, he's not being the leadoff guy they need to have those big innings to blow teams out.

- The Captain has got to be a concern. Defensively, Varitek has no peer in baseball, but his bat speed is gone. He will get the occasional clutch hit, but he's now more like a .240 hitter. Together with Lugo and the light-hitting Crisp, this makes for a fairly weak bottom third of the order. He may only have 2 or 3 decent years left, and replacing him has got to be a top concern for Mr. Epstein.

- Manny - his numbers are respectable, and he's finally got the 500 homer monkey off his back. He's not getting the clutch hits, though, and he's striking out more than he used to. And his behavior lately has been odd and worrisome to say the least. Not sure if Papi's absence is putting more pressure on him to be the Man, but I sense that not all is right in Manny Land. Maybe he's thinking too much about his contract???

- Middle/late relief corps has been the team's Achilles Heel without a doubt. Virtually all the games they're losing are unravelling in the 7th and 8th innings. They just don't have a reliable bridge to hold the lead for Papelbon. This was a real strength last year, esp with Oki being so solid in the 8th as a setup for Pap to close out the 9th. They don't have that 1-2 punch this year, and the guys leading up to Oki have been very inconsistent. Guys like Aardsma, Delcarmen, Lopez - they all have struggled. They'll have good runs, but some real crappy runs. Rarely lights-out. So, unless the Sox have a fat lead - which hasn't been the case very much this year - come the 7th inning, all bets are off.

- Papelbon - last year he was The Guy, but this year he's just elite. I still think he's the best, but the Sox have needed to use him more often this year, and that takes its toll. He has been mortal this year, giving up hits and runs where last year this hardly ever happened at all. Am not sure why, but I'd have to say he's a notch or two below 2007. Still very, very good, but not a sure thing, at least so far.

I think I'll stop now. Wakefield pitches tonight - could go either way with him. They would so love to win these next 2 and leave Tampa Bay back in first place, and then head into Yankee Stadium for what could be a crucial series. This road trip is a huge test for the Sox, and the next 6 games will go a long way to setting the stage for the stretch run. If things go well, they'll return home in first place with the Yankees at a safe distance. If the pitching and hitting collapses and there's another Massacre in NY, we could be looking at a 3 horse race by Monday. Nervous? Uh huh. Papi - please get better soon!

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