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RingCentral Puts A PBX In The Palm Of Your Hand

Telephony has certainly done its share of morphing during the last decade, as IP networks have invaded pretty much all communications spaces. The traditional PBX has given way to server-based voice systems, and wireless networking has stretched the paradigm even further. Enter both the cloud and mobile apps, and we have RingCentral’s latest strike in the battle for ever-more-powerful business communications.

For background, RingCentral has been around for almost a decade. With financial backing from the likes of Cisco and Sequoia Capital, it specializes in IP-based small-business and branch-scale unified communications. Nisha Ahluwalia is the VP of product marketing at RingCentral, and she recently caught me up on the company’s successes in different parts of the world, and how RingCentral is now leveraging the mobile device explosion and the acceptance of cloud-based services to bring interesting new capabilities to those in the market for low-cost, feature-rich voice capabilities.

Many of RingCentral’s customers have far-flung employees that need to appear to the world as being under one roof when the phone rings. The RingCentral Office "platform" lives in the cloud, has wonderfully simple all-inclusive pricing models, and elegantly marries distributed PC-based softphones and plug-and-play Polycom wired phones into a single system, regardless of where users actually hang their hats and without a clunky cabinet hung on the wall.

Having long since gotten my own toes wet with cloud-managed networking and applications for both business and personal use, I appreciate the power and flexibility that comes with opening your mind to the "as a service" models of various types. But there’s more to RingCentral’s story, as I learned during Ahluwalia’s presentation on Cloud-Touch--the company’s newest addition to an already compelling alternative to traditional and expensive voice systems.

Boiled down to the simplest form, Cloud-Touch evolves the RingCentral product line in a way that could have powerful implications for those shopping for a "system." With the latest offering, RingCentral customers can not only use smartphones as extensions on their phone system, but they can also do full system administration via an app that runs on smartphone or tablet.

When I say full system administration, I mean it. From an app on my tablet, I can activate, set up and fully manage system functions and all user extensions. The management app empowers a designated administrator to control all aspects of the RingCentral operational framework for wired Polycoms, softphones and mobile-app-based extensions. Users, from the same app with appropriate permissions, can personalize their unified communications experience as needed.

Given that Cloud-Touch allows for full administration of RingCentral’s services, I was struck by a notion that Ahluwalia confirmed. If I wanted, I could build a RingCentral system with nothing but smartphones and tablets, and still get the functional equivalent of a PBX-style environment. Presence, auto-attendant, the ability to transfer calls among virtual and wired stations, highly customizable extension settings, unlimited fax and phone services, and even integration with Google Docs, Box and Dropbox are all there.

What's perhaps most impressive about RingCentral is that it doesn't matter where your users are actually located, and users are free to use their own devices on the system. Even the slickest of key systems from days gone by couldn’t come close to that.

For an example of cost, a 10-user RingCentral system will run about $300 monthly, and Ahluwalia stressed that customers will never be subject to surprise charges or costly add-ons. If I were in the market, I’d have to give RingCentral a good hard look. Having worked on the voice side of communications when things weren’t so flexible, I can assure you that having the administrative console for my business phone system on my smartphone (which would also happen to be an extension on the system) is powerful stuff. So is having an actual phone system with potentially no hardware whatsoever.

I have no relationship with RingCentral.