I've been thinking about VoIP a fair bit lately. I don't often post "pure" opinion pieces on the front page, but I need to dangle some ideas out and see which of them stick.
In a nutshell: current (analog) phone channels-to-market don't seem to be working. What are the current channels to market? What is wrong with these channels? What is the best way to sell/market/implement VoIP to SMBs? SOHO? consumers?
Read on, and tell me what you think.
What are the current channels to market?
Let's look at the current channels for tradtional POTS services and equipment. There are of course vendors such as Nortel and Avaya (nee Lucent), Mitel and Cisco. Nortel and Avaya I think of as the old guard, with roots firmly in the beginnings of telephony. Of course, they do have new products as well.
Mitel sort of straddles both worlds, having lots of pre-IP telephony experience, but pursuing some really interesting VoIP strategies. Cisco is the new kid on the block, with IP being really their only strength and entry into the world of voice.
None of these vendors sell directly to any but the very largest of clients. Local resellers/distributors will source and implement solutions and equipment for local customers.
What's wrong with these channels?
Who are these resellers that sell telephony solutions? They are PBX experiments, know about T1s being used for voice, splicing together phone cords, and understand phones on desktops. So where does VoIP fit in? Uggh -- that requires Ethernet cabling, computers, networks, switches, servers. How many of these "phone" resellers have staff or expertise in the network fundamentals required to implement VoIP solutions?
The same can be applied to IT or "network" resellers. A business may have some in-house IT expertise or use an outside firm for support. They know networks, they know computers, they know Ethernet. Phones? They make a dial-tone, right? What's a voice codec? What do web pages care about network latency or QoS issues?
So, you typically have a business being serviced by at least two sets of technology providers -- telephony and IT. And then there are still the service providers, typically a local telco for the phone lines, and either the same telco for an Internet connection or a local ISP or cable provider.
The phone guys are too scared of networks to implement VoIP. The IT guys don't understand phones (or even the opportunity, in some cases) and also leave it alone. The telco's solutions typically don't scale down to businesses below 25 people, and are often more expensive and/or some kind of mixed centralized model where there are continuing high monthly charges (what?! get rid of those monthly line charges?!)
Who does a business turn to for VoIP solutions?
Enter the VoIP consultant. These are phone-guys or IT-guys that have gained the necessary skills and are squarely facing the future.
Allthough it can offer significant (enormous!) cost savings today, as well as more features, VoIP doesn't seem to have a single clear champion that is local to businesses. Today, VoIP is very much a sell-job, allthough in many instances (e.g. multi-site long distance toll bypass) the business case is as simple as comparing the before-and-after monthly costs, often an order of magnitude less expensive in the case of VoIP.
The VoIP consultant needs to understand the real benefits of VoIP over traditional, analog telephony. They can certainly resell or source equipment from vendors. They will likely want to be familiar with the solutions from all major vendors, picking a best-fit solution for each scenario. With complete interoperability still a ways off, each solution will be mostly composed of a single vendor's equipment. Note: I don't believe that any single vendor adequately addresses each scenario/market -- the consultant will either focus on a specific market and vendor, or have multiple vendor relationships for different markets.
What about consumer interest in VoIP?
Again, toll bypass is a pretty strong incentive to try VoIP, especiall when solutions like Skype or iChat make it so easy. I specifically keep coming back to iChat and other IM apps because I think consumer VoIP has more to do with instant messaging than it does with traditional voice applications. It will be interesting to see what effect recent announcements from Vonage about softphone support will have.
Then there is my new cellphone, a GSM/GPRS phone with many advanced, digital features: kind of what I wish my "regular" phone would be like. As consumers get more socialized to the features found in cell phones, they will start demanding the same features in their "landlines". Or, perhaps ditching their landlines, going to cable providers for high speed access, and making a cell phone their main line.
There are lots of other interesting models for consumer VoIP, but that's a whole article in itself, including my old favourite topic, in-home distribution.
The future of VoIP
This is the part where I get to make all sorts of wild predictions and suggestions.
Focus all efforts on IP-based solutions. Yes, that means IP wireless as well. You're lucky that existing investments in old infrastructure create large switching costs, but what about the next time that large enterprise moves offices? Empower small(er) resellers and developers. I can probably think of a few good solutions here as well: hire me.
Phone-guys, your days are numbered. Start looking for good IT companies to partner/merge with. IT-guys -- wake up! Think of VoIP and VoIP solutions as another area to expand your influence over a company. Do well with a VoIP migration plan, and you'll likely end up supporting a business's entire communications infrastructure. Note: don't skimp on this -- businesses still typically rely a lot more on voice communications than they do on their computers. You will likely also need a good upstream provider of VoIP gateway services.
- Service Providers:
Telcos -- you have too much money and too many bell-heads: hire me to help you figure out some solutions that benefit you and your customers. Cable providers -- you're going to need good partnerships with local implementors/resellers to succeed. Local ISPs -- gain experience yourself or make partnerships. Consider running your own VoIP gateway infrastructure or outsource this to an upstream provider (see: web hosting).
VoIP in the Middle
As referenced briefly, web hosting today is what VoIP is going to evolve into. Service providers will run their own VoIP infrastructure, or outsource it completely to VoIP specialists. These VoIP specialists may very well follow the path of the first ISPs: lots of smaller ones that grow/consolidate. Note to self: start or invest in VoIP specialist today.
Update: if only I had waited one more day to post...Here are some very good VoIP-related articles that came through on my aggregator this morning.
Tim Bray, Telephony R.I.P.?:
Let’s see; free telephone with video, or pay-for-it telephone with no picture. Costly and voice-only, or free with a picture. I think this is what an inflexion point smells like.
John Perry Barlow, Entering CasualSpace…:
To create shared spaces that span the planet, and to do so whenever you feel like it, and to leave them unpurposefully in place for hours, is not something people have done very often before.