August 27, 2013

Fonality Discusses Impact of the Ever-changing Technology and Communications Landscape

Technology is constantly changing, growing and improving. Think about how different life was just five years ago – I was just getting my first smartphone that, get this, had Internet connection. Today is a much different scene; it’s not uncommon for elementary school students to have their own smartphone, trends like bring your own device (BYOD) are enabling companies and their workforces to go mobile, wearable technology is helping even our watches and glasses to become connected, while software and cloud are the names of the game in business networking and communications.

TMC recently caught up with Jeff Valentine, executive vice president of product and corporate development at Fonality, a provider of cloud-based VoIP phone systems, on-premises phone systems, collaboration tools and contact center solutions for small- and medium-sized businesses, to discuss the latest trends and happenings in the technology and communications industry – everything from wearable technology to the service provider landscape and WebRTC to BYOD, mobile devices and social marketing and customer experience – and how these technologies are impacting our day-to-day lives.

Valentine is speaking in two sessions at ITEXPO Las Vegas, held this week at Mandalay Bay, including:

  • Transforming Your Mobile Workforce – how cloud-based solutions are transforming the field workforces of service providers across the globe
  • Business Value of Mobile Cloud – the trends surrounding the adoption of collaborative technologies in the cloud, the benefits of these solutions to the end user, and the business value the cloud brings to the industry today

How will wearable technology develop in the business world? Will you buy an iWatch or other comparable device?

The only technologies I’ll wear are items I’m wearing already; so watches, glasses, cuff links, collar stays, and even ties – I’m game. Glasses make the most sense, and I’m excited to purchase those as soon as commercially available, whether they’re from Google (News - Alert) or Logitech. When Logitech releases glasses, this means the technology has crossed the chasm and is ready to solve real market problems.

How will Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) change the service provider landscape?

It’s funny to me, and must be to others, that industry trade groups and technology writers like to create and propagate new acronyms. NFV is nothing new – Unix variants have been running on network functions on software rather than purpose-built hardware for years, and the trend in the late ‘90s to move from software to hardware (buying hardened F5 load balancers instead of writing something in software and running on your existing servers) made sense when server hardware was not robust. Today, as Five 9’s hardware is commonplace, whether or not the network functions run in pure software or virtual machines is less important than the transition away from dedicated hardware. We use virtualization today, and expect to dramatically increase our use of virtualization technologies in the future – we just don’t need a new acronym for it.  

How will the growing movement towards software impact traditional hardware vendors?

I wouldn’t want to be in the hardware business today. Software, and service delivery of software, is trending correctly. Hardware providers will need to find other ways to serve this market.

The emergence of WebRTC has generated a host of new communications vendors looking to change the communications world. How will these new providers impact the communications market?

WebRTC has received quite a bit of press lately. Like NFV, it isn’t so revolutionary – WebRTC is the next evolution of existing technologies like Ajax. What’s different now? HTML5 now becomes a more “app-like” experience, so it’s easier for vendors to distribute their software without writing native apps, but it’s not a panacea. You still need good products that solve market problems, great designs that inspire users and keep them coming back, and support teams that appreciate customers. WebRTC is building a lot of support -- estimates have it at a billion devices at year end -- but it doesn't create a market. A great user experience creates a market, and those who think differently or haven’t considered the magnitude of the market problem should think about why they’re in business in the first place. I don’t think WebRTC by itself is cool – I think great products, a great customer experience, and customers that promote us to friends and colleagues are cool. If WebRTC is a stepping-stone on the path to that, you’ll see us use it.

How have you used video in your business communications? What is the potential for video as a mainstream business technology?

Talk about false starts. Years ago, people started buzzing about videophones, and they flopped. Worldgate, the largest videophone manufacturer in the world, actually went out of business a couple of years ago. So why is it that Polycom is adding USB ports to its phones to accept video cameras, and why is Apple doing commercials about FaceTime on TV? Has the time finally come for video? Kind of. Video for business started out as a remote meeting solution to save on travel costs, much like audio conferencing did decades ago. It has slowly evolved from dedicated room systems into desktop-based systems that do not require expensive hardware to set up. Enter UCaaS companies like Fonality. Now, we can deliver a post-chasm solution to the “remote meeting” problem on a pay-as-you-go basis, and it can enable businesses to embrace what has otherwise been a minor market component. As more and more businesses adopt video, I think it will continue to be a “meeting problem solver” rather than a “call problem solver.” I don’t think there is a market problem around voice today, and lots of people don’t want to check their nose or straighten their hair before calling someone for a quick question. I think this will change over time – but that time period will be measured in decades, not years.

Should we be concerned that government entities, like the NSA, may be monitoring our communications? What impact will recent information surrounding the PRISM program have on technology vendors?

The NSA was reportedly monitoring call metadata – who called whom, when and for how long – not conversations themselves (at least domestically). As a freedom-loving American, this offends me. But as a communications executive, I know this is a relatively useless set of data and that security-by-obscurity makes this out to be a bigger news item than perhaps it should be. If someone wanted to track my movements or communications, there are lots of ways to do it, and Americans voluntarily give up this information to Facebook daily. I don’t want the government to track Americans’ communications, or even the data about them, but if enough folks complain about it, it will stop.

Does your business have a defined social marketing strategy? Define its impact on your business.

The goals of Fonality’s social media strategy are to drive leads for our products and to promote the Fonality brand to small and medium-sized businesses. Through our social media efforts, we work to serve as a resource for SMBs and the IT professionals who serve them. Rather than sharing only content related to business phone solutions, we share and discuss a range of topics of interests to our target audience. We not only cover communications technology, contact centers and UC, but topics like small business marketing, entrepreneurship and productivity.

Our social mix includes blog posts, eBooks, product information, videos, tech tips, and discussion questions and we promote our content over the usual platforms, like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, and by providing guest blogs for others. We also encourage our employees to serve as social marketing ambassadors for Fonality on their own personal profiles.

How has social changed your approach to customer service?

Social media has made customer service a public and community outlet for questions, concerns, and complaints from customers. It’s no longer a matter of simply addressing the customer’s needs—we now need to be sure that everyone else who might see their post can also see how it was addressed. That drives companies like ours to constantly work to exceed expectations and work to find ways to do even better.

How has the BYOD trend impacted your business? What changes have you had to implement and what challenges have you experienced?

For early adopters, BYOD is very relevant. But for most businesses, employees still want a phone on their desk and if you told them they had to use only a cell phone, they’d freak out. My wife is a teacher, and being married to me is constantly putting up with the newest technologies in our home. We have various streaming devices for our television, a smarter remote control -- you get the idea. When someone calls her cell phone, or she has to place a call, she keeps the conversations very short. I asked her about this, and she told me: “I don’t like talking on it. It sounds wrong.” I had to press, and I learned that she didn’t find it natural because she couldn’t talk when someone else was talking, and vice versa. Subconsciously, she realized that cell phone networks are inherently asynchronous, and interrupting people – even interrupting background noise – is not natural. It’s like a CB radio with an automatic “push to talk” button, and she doesn’t like it. I think many folks agree. Now, will that eventually be fixed? Yes, as mobile networks upgrade and as new technology is adopted.

To avoid that poor user experience, the only solution today is to use a softphone on your mobile device, which sounds great and even works great – but in the lab. Once you get out in the field, you’ll encounter Wi-Fi dead spots, high latency 4G zones, and calls cutting out from RF interference when your coworker uses the office microwave to heat up his lentil soup. BYOD is an emerging trend, and as such, we should all be prepared for mass adoption in the future -- but it’s not yet around the corner.

What different devices do you use in your daily business activities? Which are the most useful and why?

As I travel quite a bit, my cell phone is my No. 1 device (I’m on an iPhone, but am Android-curious) simply due to portability. But my second most-used -- and favorite -- device is Fonality’s UC tool, Heads Up Display (HUD). It’s a tool allowing all employees at a company to see presence, chat, join conference calls, share screens, exchange files and more. It’s always up in the background when I’m online.

Is the mobile device market going to become a battle between Apple and Samsung, or can others find success, as well?

In the next two years, I see Samsung winning with better innovation, especially as Android gets its kinks worked out. Let’s hope for more market entrants to drive innovation.

To what degree has cloud computing influenced your business model?

Cloud computing is our business model. We sell our solutions as a service, and the cloud is the only way we could have developed our product to support that service.

What recent tech innovation will have the greatest impact on our lives?

I believe that Google Glass and future wearable interactive displays will have a tremendous impact on our lives.

What are you looking forward to accomplishing at ITEXPO Las Vegas? What topics are you looking forward to discussing or hearing about?

I believe in NIHITO – Nothing Important Happens In The Office – so going to an event like ITEXPO is a good opportunity to look at the market from the outside in. I’m looking forward to seeing what our competitors are doing, gauging market interest in solving particular problems, and setting up relationships with partners that might help us grow our business.

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