Verizon has launched a new cloud phone service for small and midsize businesses (SMBs) called Virtual Communications Express. The voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) service integrates with Google Apps to offer click-to-call functionality from email, calendar, and chat.
It also includes telepresence, visual voicemail, and other features common in unified communications (UC) and private branch exchange (PBX) systems. Virtual Communications Express, though, is aimed at smaller organizations that are a bit gun shy about a heavy-duty communications deployment.
"I think the main thrust of this is to bring PBX features to companies that don't have the budget or in-house resources to manage a full-fledged PBX or UC system," said IDC analyst Matt Davis via email. Davis sees the new service as a "market-building exercise" for Verizon, citing IDC research that shows reluctance among SMBs to embrace virtual PBX or other hosted communications services--even though those platforms are often intended for companies with limited financial and technical resources.
[ For expert tips on how to streamline data flow on your company's network, see 4 Bandwidth Management Tips For SMBs. ]
Indeed, Verizon product management director Tom Dalrymple said he'd put Virtual Communications Express in the UC category, just minus the heavy lifting. "There's no design required," Dalrymple said. "You don't have to have the Cisco-certified engineer configure it for you."
Deployment takes seven days, according to Dalrymple; if you're porting over existing numbers, that will take about twice as long, but Verizon will issue temporary numbers in the interim. SMBs looking to eliminate capital expenditures altogether can rent the phones from Verizon, though they're available for purchase as well. Pricing will range between $20 and $35 per user depending on the numbers of users and configuration, not including the phones or the Google Apps subscription. Users can be added or deleted on the fly.
There's not necessarily a technical limitation on the total number of users, but Dalrymple said the VoIP service will likely appeal most to companies with between 20 and 70 employees. While Verizon has offered service bundles with Google Apps, it's not necessary to buy the cloud suite--or broadband internet service, for that matter--directly from Verizon to use Virtual Communications Express.
The devil's advocate--or, better yet, the truly bootstrapped small business--might ask: Why not just use Skype or Google Talk alongside Google Apps? Feature comparisons aside, Verizon apparently intends to flex its customer support muscle here. "We've found in the SMB space it's really important that there be a high touch, high customer care installation," Dalrymple said, adding that an "implementation coordinator" will be assigned to each new account to oversee the process from sale to deployment.
IDC's Davis noted that the likes of AT&T and Comcast are also treading in the SMB market for cloud-based communications, adding that the challenge is to provide advanced technologies that actually deliver on ease-of-use promises. "This is where Verizon may have an advantage over companies that don't have a deep customer support capability," Davis said.
Virtual Communications Express isn't launching with any client-side mobile apps, though Dalrymple said they're in the works. Currently, a user can answer calls to their office line from their iPhone, for example; likewise, they can make calls from their mobile device via the VoIP service that appear to be from their office number on caller ID.
Dalrymple said it's "too soon to say" whether the initial Google Apps functionality will open the door for similar integrations with other cloud platforms. That's probably the prudent course, according to IDC's Davis.
"The fact that it is hosted potentially opens up an avenue for integration of other cloud-based applications and potentially creates a larger platform that can be accessed by any connected device, including mobile devices," Davis said. "But I'd want to walk before I start running if I was Verizon."
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