Friday, February 19, 2010

Skype/Verizon News - My Take

Tuesday's news about Skype and Verizon Wireless was a pretty big deal. I wasn't at MWC to see the press conference, and other things kept me from blogging about it until now, but I wanted to share my thoughts in some form. The uber bloggers have covered all the news angles by now, so let's not go there.

The next best thing is to write about the bigger picture, and I've done that in my latest Service Provider Views column, which is running now on TMCnet. So, if this story is still of interest to you - and it should be - you can read my take here, and by all means, you're welcome to keep the conversation going.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cisco - Q2 Collaboration Review

Today was the first time I've attended one of Cisco's Collaboration Reviews via telepresence. Telephone or WebEx sessions are the norm, and while they're usually pretty good, TP is the next best thing to being there. Before getting your hopes up too high, this wasn't a full-blown TP session (and I've been on plenty of those). It was just me and their AR liaision, Andrea Berry at Cisco Canada's HQ in downtown Toronto. While this was a global event, with 22 analysts participating, it looks like I was the lone Canadian analyst - lucky me. So, I can say with pretty good confidence that this may well be the first news you've heard about today.

There wasn't anything really groundbreaking, and the session was just an hour - and I mean that literally. Cisco makes extensive use of TP internally, and apparently their TP rooms are booked months in advance. So, when your time slot is up, it's up. The screen abruptly went blank on the host in mid-sentence at 1pm on the dot. Gotta keep the train moving I guess.

Most of the talking was done by two key drivers of their collaboration initiatives - Barry O'Sullivan - SVP Voice Technology Group, and Carl Wiese - SVP Global Collaboration Sales. They had a lot to recap from the recent quarter, and here are the main points that I can share:

- they posted 17% year-over-year growth across their collaboration portfolio - UC, contact center, telepresence, IP telephony, WebEx, etc.

- like any vendor in this space, they have been aggressively going after competitors who have struggled, namely Nortel, Siemens and ALU

- while revenues were not disclosed, they cited early successes in their various spaces - 12 customers now using WebEx Mail (all are U.S. and primarily SMB), 450+ are using cloud-based IM, over 3,600 locations using telepresence, and 75 customers using Show and Share

- perhaps the strongest message overall was their move into hosted services - this will now give their customers a choice between premise-based and carrier-based solutions

- highlights were given about 4 recent customer wins - each one showcasing a particular strength of Cisco or attractive market opportunity

- their objective of providing "pervasive video" - both big and small - was briefly discussed, but no updates on the Tandberg deal were given

A couple of these points warrant a bit more detail, so here goes...

Regarding WebEx Mail, that was a highlight for me at their Collaboration Summit last November. They shared one lesson learned with us today, which I found interesting. Their early deployments did not support BlackBerry, and it looks like they underestimated how important this was, even for SMBs. As such, they've had to accelerate BlackBerry integration to keep these deployments moving forward. I asked if they had any indication yet as to whether their email platform has led to faster adoption of other collaboration tools. They liked the question, but didn't have much to say - am guessing it's early days, but I have to think that's the end game here.

The move to hosted has huge implications, and the analysts had lots of questions about this one. I wanted to better understand the role they seek to play, especially in terms of owning the customer and sharing revenues with service providers. They talked about their intent being to get the carrier set up to offer hosted, and then let them run with it. The acronym they used is BOT - "Build, Operate and Transfer". That's the process, and we'll just have to see how it actually unfolds. It's clear they want to have it both ways - deploy on-prem, as well as partner with carriers - with the customer choosing the best path. They wouldn't quantify the market opportunity, but did go so far to say that it "appears real". They're in talks with 10 carriers now, and BT is the one they point to as an announced partner for hosted. There is a lot of potential here for channel conflict, and Cisco is not afraid to tread on new ground. However, I got the sense they are approaching hosted cautiously, and it looked to me like they were choosing their words carefully. Regardless, they're not going to ignore the hosted market, so get used to it, folks.

Two customer wins were of particular interest to me. One was Duke University, where they talked about how they're using telepresence to help extend the classroom experience off campus. I've long felt that distance learning is a huge opportunity, and that IP technologies will play a big role in re-defining higher education.

The other customer win was Molina Healthcare. Aside from this being another great vertical market for collaboration, they cited an interesting outcome from deploying telepresence there. They're finding that people are meeting twice as often, but for half as long. That's a pretty good result, and a great way to validate the value of telepresence.

Finally, I just had to comment on the actual experience of using TP today. Since the topic was collaboration, one would expect the tools for the meeting would properly reflect that. For the most part they did. Even though the screen we used was fairly small - see photos below - both the audio and video quality were very good. However, there was no use of split screens, which would have been effective at times, since Barry and Carl were in different locations. As such, the visuals were very much in a serial manner. One speaker at a time - cut to the next speaker - cut back to the first speaker, etc. I found it a bit like watching a newscast - it's ok, but not that engaging.

Two other small things. I suspect other locations had multiple screens, whereas we only had one. When the host was addressing me, she was looking to the right, which must have been the screen she was seeing me on. This would look perfectly normal from her end, but Andrea and I only saw her looking right, and not at us. This takes some getting used to, as it wasn't clear that she was talking to me. To us, it looked like she was talking to someone else. Live and learn.

The other small thing was the use of a slide deck during the session. They were really just used in passing reference, and most of our attention was centered on the speakers. That was probably for the best, since the slides were only displayed in the bottom right corner of the screen. Since we had a small TP unit, the slides were really small, and almost impossible to read. I'm sure this would be less of a problem on a full-size system, so I guess this comes with the territory. On the other hand, I would have been just as happy to have no slides, which would give us an unobstructed view of the speaker (see photos below). For any speaker sitting on that side of the screen, the slides block out a good portion of their body. While Anderson Cooper would probably roll with that, Ted Baxter would be freaking out - so, as long as the egos are in check, it's probably not a problem. :-)

Barry O'Sullivan

Carl Wiese

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Aastra MX-ONE Comes to Canada

This may seem like a strange headline, considering that Aastra is a Canadian company. However, that's the news that we got updated on at today's analyst briefing at their HQ just outside of Toronto. MX-ONE is Aastra's mid/large enterprise offering, and comes out of an acquisition from Ericsson. I commented on this briefly in a recent writeup on the UC Strategies portal.

Today's briefing actually addressed two items - MX-ONE and their Q4 earnings, which were announced yesterday. Keeping with my recent blog theme about good news stories, Aastra is definitely another solid example, and it's especially nice to hear about a Canadian success story.

On the earnings front, this is their 47th consecutive profitable quarter - does it really get any better from a company that flies below a lot of people's radar? Sales were $833 million - flat from 2008 - but they're well on target for hitting $1 billion, which is pretty significant for a Canadian telecom company not named Nortel. Similar to the strong numbers reported by Acme Packet last week, Aastra has money in the bank - $117 million - and spent a respectable $82 million on R&D, which is just under 10% of sales. So, they have the means to both continue innovating and make strategic acquisitions as needed - that's a nice combination to have.

With Nortel folding into Avaya, Aastra now becomes one of the four major players in the U.S., along with Cisco and Mitel. This leads us to MX-ONE, and their roadmap to become established now in Canada and enter that select circle up here. Of course, all the vendors have their let's-exploit-Nortel's-demise strategy, and Aastra feels they offer a strong alternative. Aside from being financially stable, they talked about some other core virtues - namely proven technology, a commitment to open standards, and being easy to do business with. I wasn't able to stay the whole morning, but from what I saw, they did a good job backing these claims up.

Between Unified Communications and Contact Center solutions, they feel there's a $2 billion market opporunity in Canada, and following the Nortel saga, the time is right to go after the mid/large enterprise market with MX-ONE. They have a global footprint today with this offering, so there should be a natural appeal for multinational companies with Canadian branch offices. They also stressed their ability to integrate with other PBX vendors, and with their HP ProCurve alliance, they have a solid software-based solution. This plays nicely into their focus on SIP and virtualization, making it easy for deployments to scale and add new IP-based applications. Given how Cisco is crossing into HP's territory these days, the Aastra/HP combination presents a best-of-breed alternative for businesses concerned about vendor lock-in with Cisco.

They also talked about channels, and it's clear their success will weigh heavily on developing the right partner mix. Aastra prefers a more select approach with partners who are either strong in a particular vertical and/or selling against a key competitor. I agree that channels are the name of the game, and with Canada being a greenfield market for MX-ONE, they'll need to pick their partners carefully. Two of them were on hand today - Demarcation Point, and Conpute, and we heard a bit from the latter, who is particularly strong in the education market.

The more I get to know Aastra, the more I like them, and it's great to see a local company become so large and successful. I asked how much MX-ONE drives their top line growth, but didn't get an answer. That's ok. You could argue that their Canadian push will not have much impact in the short term, but if Canada really is a $2 billion market for them, even a 10% share would account for almost 25% of current revenues. Clearly, they've done very well to date without this market, but if they execute well, there's no reason why MX-ONE can't be a big part of helping them get to $1 billion in the next 2-3 years.

Yves Laliberte, EVP kicking things off

Craig Ballard, Technical Sales Manager - reviewing their competitive differentiators

Mark Marshall, VP Enterprise Sales - discussing Aastra's go to market plans

Don Conley, Conpute - the channel perspective

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Good News, Part 2 - Acme Packet

Picking up from yesterday's post, here's another good news item of note. Acme Packet has done more than anyone else to personify the session border controller space and has emerged as the clear market leader. It's one thing to be number one in your market, but it's even better when you're dominant, as is the case with Acme. I've written about Acme many times, and a quick search on my blog will take you to posts that help explain how they got to be this way.

Earlier this week I was briefed on their latest news in advance of next week's Mobile World Congress, and that embargo was lifted today. There are really two threads to this good news story, and I'll touch on each separately.

First would be their Q4 2009 earnings, which has largely been re-hashed by the financial analyst community. Being an industry analyst, I'm more focused on the business metrics than the earnings, and even just a few numbers tells a lot.

On the finance side, it's hard to ignore the basics:

- Revenues are at critical mass now - $141.5 million in 2009. When I began following them back as a tiny startup, let's just say the numbers were a lot smaller. 2010 is looking even better - they expect 30% growth, which will put them on track for about $185 million.

- Net income was $17.1 million, up 47% from 2008. This isn't huge, but they're making money, folks, and profits are up sharply.

- Money in the bank - $175 million. Wow - that's pretty healthy, especially when you consider they absorbed Covergence last May, and there's not much left out there competition-wise that's worth buying. Maybe Sipera or Sansay. Being public, no doubt the portfolio managers will be watching closely to see what they do with that stash. They'd either have to move sideways and acquire related or complementary technologies - perhaps firewalls or routers - or make a big upward move to acquire someone much bigger but less stable. I'd bet on the former if they do anything at all.

Speaking of being a public company, it's also worth noting that Acme's share price has recovered very nicely from last fall, when they were under $4, and is now up near $14. Going public cuts both ways, but with their current momentum, Acme looks about as good as it gets for companies in this space.

Financials aside, the customer footprint really tells the story for me. I'd say the most impressive metric is customers - 980 and counting. I don't know if they'll have a special prize for customer #1,000, but that will be a nice milestone to hit. Keeping pace with their strong financial metrics, Acme added 235 customers last year. I'll bet it takes a few years for a lot of companies to add that many. I should also add that almost 20% of their customers are enterprises, so Acme is more than just a carrier play.

Unlike Vonage, where churn is a fact of life, and ARPU is hard to grow, Acme doesn't lose many customers, and most of them have a lot of upside for SBCs, as the migration from circuit to packet continues. Finally, it's worth adding that Acme is truly global, with customers in 104 countries.

Enough said. The second strand of news was announced today in a rather long, complex press release. The news covers three big updates to their Net-Net portfolio.

First is the Net-Net SIP Multimedia-xpress. This update focuses on the challenges service providers face with IMS compliance, which has proven slow to materialize. Acme has come up with an "IMS equivalent alternative", with the idea being to provide a lower cost, more flexible way to help carriers introduce new SIP services in a scalable manner. The focus is on time-to-market, which carriers desperately need to stay competitive.

Second would be their Net-Net SBC Cluster/Session-Aware Load Balancer. That's a mouthful, and all I can say is that it enables SIP multimedia applications on a large scale. And they do mean large - up to 2 million subscribers. That's a big number, and I can't validate that for you, but clearly, Acme is aiming high here. Bottom line is that Tier 1 operators are adopting IP at a fast rate now - especially with mobile - and it won't take long for them to support services on this scale.

The third element is the Net-Net Route Manager. This seems more straightforward, and supports more centralized management of SIP routing across the network, which may have many nodes across many geographies.

I'll be the first to say this is a simplified summary of the enhancements, and the details are simply too technical for me to explore further. SBCs are complex, and I'm not the only analyst out there who can only digest Acme's news at a high level. Most network elements are fairly intuitive, but Acme has taken SBCs to a very advanced level, and even their press release - which should only be 1-2 pages - requires 5 pages to explain it.

I'm not technical enough to say whether this complexity is by design, and I'll take it on faith that all these enhancements are going to make life better for operators. If you want a higher comfort level, I suggest you talk to an Engineer. However, from my vantage point, I believe Acme has a strong story to tell, and have no doubt the carriers at MWC next week will be a great point of validation for them.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Good News, Part 1 - Xconnect Doubles Revenues

Being shut down with a head cold for a few days will put a damper on things, but I'm definitely on the mend. Haven't been able to follow things much lately, but good news seems to come in cycles, and I'm seeing one now. Last week I talked about the new CEO at Metaswitch and how that's lining up nicely with a bigger growth story they seem to be managing very well.

There was a second good news item last week from XConnect, another company I've followed closely for a long time. Being an Advisor, I've deliberately held off blogging about this, and don't want to give the impression I'm sharing anything sensitive or a scoop ahead of the pack. Am just treating this as a straight up news item, and I think it speaks for itself. As announced, their 2009 revenues doubled, and traffic is up 81%. The metric I look
at with even more interest is customer acquisition, and they added a healthy 63 new service provider customers last year. The peering market is still advancing slower than anticipated, and the revenues are still fairly small, so doubling sales is not as impresssive as it would be in a more mature market.

That aside, XConnect is on track for a strong year. The press release notes the addition of a London POP, and money in the bank to support expansion via last year's $10 million Series B raise. Like many companies focused on the long term migration from TDM to IP, XConnect is riding on some big trends that will play in their favor over time, with the most recent being the explosion of mobile broadband (and with it, more and more wireless substitution), and the adoption of HD services. It's early days for HD voice, but just like with HD TV, once you try it, there's no turning back.

XConnect is far from a household name, but they're a leading player in their space, and I know their time will come. The company got some nice recognition along these lines month, being named a Red Herring Global 100 Winner. This may have been the first a lot of people heard about them, but those of us following them more closely, it's hard not to argue that their prospects are looking good.

Tomorrow I'll continue the good news theme with Part 2, and a bunch of news from another company that's driving IP to the masses.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Metaswitch Announces New CEO

Was just on a briefing call about some news from Metaswitch. I don't track news items as a matter of course, but this announcement came my way on short notice, and being a company I follow closely, it's worth noting.

Metaswitch is a great example of a company that goes about its business quietly, deliberately and effectively. These really aren't 2.0-style virtues, but I'll take their track record any day over the fast and furious.

The news item is pretty pedestrian - Kevin DeNuccio takes the CEO reins from John Lazar, who now moves into the Chairman spot, in turn from Ian Feguson, who remains on the board. You can read the details here on the press release that just ran this morning.

Kevin has big company experience from Redback Networks and Cisco, and it looked like a good move when he came on board as a director in 2008. I've seen this with other companies who are ramping up for growth and/or targeting bigger customers. This type of pedigree can be invaluable on a few levels, and it's not surprising to see Kevin now in the CEO spot.

You could argue the company wanted more of a U.S.-based/style of CEO, but I think that's the short answer. Their culture is too strong, and I don't see them becoming a rah-rah type of company trying to get really big by acquiring competitors and raising lots of money to fund it. That's not their style.

I see this more as another step along the way to deepen their management team, and position the company for continued, global growth. Metaswitch is definitely growing into new frontiers, namely wireless and developer-based applications, and of course moving further up the chain with bigger telco customers. I can see Kevin's presence helping with bigger telcos, but I'm not as sure about these other areas.

Regardless, I think this sends a positive message that Metaswitch is well positioned for 2010, and having gone through some corporate re-jigging/branding last year, they have a plan in place, and this news is just part of how they're executing on it.

I'm still not entirely sure why this move is happening and why now, and we'll just have to take it on the faith that it's all for the best. My only concern is their ability to assure core customers that nothing changes for them. They've done a great job acquiring - and keeping - Tier 2/3 carriers, and will need to be careful not to give them a reason to think they're moving away to chase bigger game. We got assurances on the call this won't happen, and I'm confident that's how things will unfold. They know their roots too well - just consider where their next customer forum takes place - Nashville. Great music aside, I can't think of a better spot to be among your people. I hope Kevin likes country and bluegrass....

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

UC Strategies - ITExpo/Industry News Recap

After a brief hiatus, I was able to join the weekly UC Strategies podcast on Monday. This week, the focus was a recap of recent industry events as well as news of note, namely the iPad launch.

A few industry events were discussed, but ITExpo was the only one I had attended. I shared my thoughts on the Expo along with others who were there such as Jim Burton and Dave Michels. All told, it's a nice recap, esp from Dave, who was attending for the first time. Towards the end, we also talked about the iPad, and I managed to add my take to the mix.

The podcast is running now on the UC Strategies portal, and you can access it here. Hope you give it a listen, and if you attended the ITExpo, by all means, let us know what you thought of it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

DAVE Wireless/Mobilicity - the Next Wave in Canadian Wireless Competition

The second shoe dropped today in terms of new entries for Canada's wireless market. I've been following this space for some time, and the winners of last year's AWS auction are starting to make moves to shake things up here. About six weeks ago, the most ambitious entry - Wind Mobile - was the first to launch. I've generally been skeptical of the chances for these new players, and as first movers go, I haven't been overwhelmed with Wind.

Enough said for now - but we can talk more about that later. Let's focus on today's news, which has a few angles of interest. The next entry making noise is DAVE Wireless. The acronym is awkward and misleading - Data and Audio Visual Enterprises - but guess what?

Breaking news - they've just done their branding launch, and I like the new name MUCH better. They're coming to market under the moniker Mobilicity, and the press release just hit the wires. A bit like Sex and the City - rolls off the tongue nicely and hints at adventure, and combines two words that define their value proposition - mobility and city. I also can't help but notice the subtle homage here that comes from their CEO's former role as head of Toronto Hydro Telecom, the telecom arm of our local electric utility.

While that news is very much here and now, let me rewind to earlier this morning, where I attended the first public address about their plans at the Toronto Board of Trade. That's what I'm trying to post about, but the re-name news just came out while writing this up.

So, bright and early at 8am, DAVE Wireless's CEO, Dave Dobbin addressed a very full house about their latest news. First off, the service hasn't launched yet - that's coming in the spring. This gives Wind a 4-5 month head start, but if DAVE really is as distinct as promised, it may not be much of a factor.

Dave's main message this morning was to set the stage for their launch by explaining why competition is a good thing for consumers, and how their service is going to be different. Just a quick aside - TELUS is one of the sponsors of this breakfast speaker series, and in my recent conversations with them, it hasn't been lost on them that their dollars are helping provide a stage for a new competitor to tell their story. Am sure Mr. Dobbin sent Mr. Entwistle a friendly text message to thank him.

Back to the presentation. I certainly like the opening comments, where he noted that the mere threat of competition has already benefitted consumers. That's very true, esp considering that the AWS auction seemed to be ages ago, and so far, only one new service has actually come to market. Despite that, prices are lower today, system access fees are going away, and Canada now has 6 3G networks. Well, if that isn't progress, I don't know what is. Nice way to start things off.

Moving on to the more pressing questions, things are a bit less clear cut. Dave focused on the three questions his company gets asked about the most - is there room for DAVE?, can you afford to build out a network to be competitive?, and how will DAVE compete?

On the first question, I have no issues. I've long felt the Canadian market is too small to support more than 3-4 wireless operators, but there's no doubt there are many ponds to fish in for customers. Sure, there's the greenfield opportunity (but I think it's overrated), and we'll get our share of wireless substitution up here. The bigger variables are the unhappy subscribers they can siphon off from the Big 3 as well as the prepaid plans where there are no contracts to lock people in. To reel in their share of customers, DAVE simply has to have a great marketing plan and execute on it. This isn't about technology - it's about meeting customer needs better than the other guys.

I also agree strongly with Dave on the second issue. Our incumbents have been crying for ages that it's taken almost 20 years to start truly becoming profitable given the high costs of building cellular networks. This is why they've fought competition for so long, as they'll now have to share those profits with newcomers. It's a bit like the pharmaceutical game where patent protection is necessary to enable a payback on the long R&D cycles to develop new drugs. Of course, this is one of the great things about Canada - all those low-cost generics, thanks to the absence of patent protection here. The tradeoff is simple - we get cheap drugs, but all the R&D is done elsewhere, and with that come lots of high value jobs. You can't have it all, right?

Anyhow, I've long concurred with Dave that networks can be built more quickly, more cheaply and more flexibly today, so cost isn't the issue it once was. I've certainly followed this long enough in the VoIP world, and it's no different for wireless. Dave added another important point that works in DAVE's favor - they're not building a national network. They're only serving the top 10 urban markets, so they're optimizing both their spend and coverage - good idea.

On to the third point - how will DAVE compete? That's really the big one, and I'm not entirely convinced they can bring enough differentiation to make a huge impact. On the other hand, maybe they don't need to. They're not as leveraged financially as Globalive, and to their credit, don't have any foreign ownership issues to hold things up (which I believe hurt Globalive by causing them to launch after the Xmas season rush). Aside from being a low cost operator and having a high value offering for a distinct segment of the market, I'm not really sure what their service will actually look like. Dave talks about having a flexible business and following the best of breed partering approach - Amdocs, Ericsson, Ingram Micro, etc. Nothing wrong with that, and it sure makes the risk factors more manageable.

It seems to me they'll be targeting urban users who are somewhere between the prepaid market and high end power users. There's a big middle ground there, and I'm sure with some well executed marketing, backed by reliable market research they'll hone in on this target and hit it pretty well. Dave also made it clear they won't be competing directly with the incumbents - again, a good idea. However, I think that's easier said than done. We don't know how the majors will respond, but whether it's their prepaid plans or postpaid plans, I have no doubt they'll find ways to counter any new entry that makes life difficult for them.

On that note, my impression is that the weak link for DAVE is channels. All Dave would say is they'll have "some forms of national retail". I don't think he means Sears or Walmart or Canadian Tire - or maybe this is just a red herring. There's a reason why Bell Canada bought The Source (Radio Shack) - to take another channel away from new entries. Sure, DAVE will have their own stores and independent dealers, but I suspect they'll need a lot more to get beyond grassroots support. If you look at my post about Wind that I cited earlier here, there are some photos of their kiosk, and it's not very encouraging. Guess what? I pass by that kiosk a few times a week, and it looks the same every time. With this kind of traffic, I don't think the incumbents have too much to worry about.

That said, with DAVE being a pure consumer play, and no other bundled service to piggyback on, having strong retail channels will be paramount. Otherwise, you get stuck on the Vonage treadmill and black hole of marketing spend to acquire - and keep - new customers. No thanks.

To wrap up, do I think DAVE will succeed? It won't be easy, but so far, I like their chances better than Wind. It's not quite as ambitious, and maybe that's the point. There are plenty of free radicals out there up for grabs, so why not DAVE? From where I sit day-to-day, I'm not seeing anything truly innovative here, and not once did I hear "applications" mentioned. I think there is a world of opportunity for wireless operators to reinvent their business - with or without smartphones. This holds equally for DAVE as it does for the incumbents, and if DAVE does what Dave says they will, they have as good a chance as anyone to make this work. More chapters to be written on this topic, so don't go away for too long.

Great to see a packed room for this

Our backroom media scrum after Dave's presentation

Monday, February 1, 2010

january media roundup

Fairly light month in terms of media coverage, but I certainly had my hands full with the Smart Grid Summit. No quotes in the press - which hasn't happened in a long time - but I've already done a couple of stories that will run this month.

Basically, my citings are all article-based - three written by me, and one as an interview about the Summit. Let's start there:

- PR Vibes - Smart Grid Summit Preview, Q&A with Jon Arnold

- UC Strategies - Interactive Intelligence Moves Toward CaaS for Contact Center Automation

- Service Provider Views - Google in China - What Business are you Really In?

- Service Provider Views - 2010 - it's only January, and Already so Many Questions About Service Providers