Erik Linask : Convergence Corner
Erik Linask

May 2010

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AT&T's U-verse: VoIP Providers Can't Afford Mistakes

May 27, 2010

If you are an AT&T U-verse customer - or if you read the report from TMC's Marisa Torrieri yesterday - you know AT&T's voice service went down for as many as four hours in the middle of the day.   So initially, you might think the impact was likely minimal, since U-verse is a consumer brand, but the fact is that, with today's telecommuting options, it's actually likely the number of people who lost their ability to work effectively from their home offices was significantly higher.   In fact, I can attest first hand to the impact such an outage can have on a business conversation - or even worse, a phone-based event.   Tuesday afternoon, I was ready to kick off a TMC Webinar, sponsored by Yap - we were literally in the process of switching over to the live presentation - when the speaker dropped off the line. At the time, I wasn't aware of what had happened, and everyone else on the administrative side assumed he would call right back in and we would move on without a hitch.   So, I proceeded with my opening remarks, focusing on how voicemail to text capabilities can be a tremendous benefit and create a more efficient work environment. I introduced the speaker, then saw that he had not been able to get back on. In fact, he indicated through a colleague that he was getting a busy signal when he tried to call back in.   We now know that the busy signal was one of the symptoms of the server crash that caused the widespread outage on AT&T's network.   Ultimately, our speaker finally got back onto the call - on his clearly much more reliable cell phone - and I was able to keep the event going, even getting into his first few slides as we waited. I later found out that he was using AT&T's U-verse.   So, by now, you've likely read countless comments about how IP-based telephony is still entirely unreliable. I'm not sure that is an entirely fair assessment. Certainly, AT&T's service reliability can be questioned - especially knowing that only two weeks ago it suffered another outage, though that one overnight, limiting its impact.   But, for those of us who have been using VoIP systems at work, and consumer VoIP services at home, we know these issues are not as commonplace as some reports have indicated. And though I don't have VoIP service in my home - I still use AT&T's PSTN service - I can confirm that the quality of conversations I have with VoIP users has improved significantly over the years. One of the reason's I haven't switched is that FiOS isn't available in my area, and I don't have any desire to give any more money to my cable provider than I already do - cable pricing is outrageous, but that's a story for another day. And you can see for yourself why I haven't switched to U-verse.   In fact, most business VoIP issues are a result of business networks not being properly assessed and/or built for voice services. Over the years, one thing has been made abundantly clear: You can't simply add VoIP services to you existing network without properly assessing your infrastructure and ensuring it is properly set up to deliver it. And even if you've done your homework, you also need to appropriate monitoring capabilities to help troubleshoot, and even address potential issues before they impact your network.   As for AT&T, these latest outages are only the latest evidence that it rolled out its service prematurely in an attempt to compete with Verizon's FiOS service. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be paying off. At a time when alternatives to telco and cable MSO services are more prevalent than ever, the potential damage from these outages doesn't bode well for AT&T and its U-verse service.    For instance, you can go into your local Best Buy, for instance and pick up an Ooma Telo for a few hundred dollars (Ooma claims that, based on an existing $50 monthly phone bill, it's service will pay for itself in five months, and over three years, the same user will save more than $1,500). For more on the quality delivered by today's VoIP systems, check out Ooma's Voice Quality community.   I should also mention that the rest of the Webinar with Yap went off without a hitch. If you missed it, be sure to check out the archived version to find out just how beneficial - and inexpensive - voicemail to text can be.

Philips' uWand Controller Reinvents the Remote Control Experience

May 14, 2010

When Nintendo released its Wii gaming system back in 2006, it promised to redefine the gaming experience - not because of enhanced graphics and immersive sound, but because of its revolutionary motion sensitive controller. If you've never played a game on the Wii, you may not know what I'm talking about, but suffice it to say that it offers a much more intuitive experience than traditional button-based controllers.   When I sat down with Navin Natoewal, general manager of the uWand product at Philips at The Cable Show, my initial thought, when he explained he was going to talk about a remote control device, was, "What can possibly be so exciting about a remote control, when there are so many exciting real applications on the show floor?"   Well, that's where the Wii experience comes in. The uWand remote control is actually less remote control than it is Wii controller. It features only three buttons (OK, Home, and Back), and features an accelerometer that enables all other capabilities in conjunction with the OK button.    Natoewal explained that the premise is quite basic and solves the problem nearly all communications and entertainment application and product developers seek to address: ease of use.   "It's about simplifying the user interface by moving from a traditional button-based remote control to a pointing device," he said. "Research shows that the controller and UI have a significant impact on user sentiment."

In fact, of the users that have tested the uWand, 77 percent say they prefer the pointer (add one more to the list). And why not? With the pointer, just as with the Wii system, you can quickly navigate across an entire screen, allowing application developers to leverage the full real estate of the screen rather than relying on smaller menus for navigation. Or, when viewing the EPG, users can easily select a program on the right-hand side of the screen without having to click through each previous programming choice. Instead, simply move the pointer to your selection and click - just like using a mouse on your PC.   The features extend far beyond that, though.   Depending on the specific application and setup, a flick of the wrist can adjust the volume, scroll through the EPG, or forward through content. Or, in a picture viewing application, holding the OK button will allow dragging of an image across the screen (much like dragging and dropping with your mouse), or use the same feature in the EPG to move content into a PVR feature.   Back to the picture viewer, though. Perhaps the coolest of the features was the ability to zoom in and out with a natural forward or backward movement of the uWand. The same capability can easily be built into content, allowing users to zoom in or out to enhance their viewing experience. Imagine leveraging the capability in instant replay at sporting events. Review officials can easily zoom in on a close play at home to determine whether the runner scored or was out.   Incidentally, the demos I saw are only the beginning. For instance, with all the social media applications being integrated into nearly every communications platform, it's easy to imagine Facebook, Twitter, and other applications quickly becoming part of the on-screen viewing experience. For those, a BlackBerry-style keyboard can easily be built into the front or back of the uWand, depending on the orientation of the keyboard.   But the on-screen experience itself is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to STBs and media players, game consoles, and other similar devices, future applications in a connected home environment will include lighting systems, digital photo frames, and anything else you can control remotely, not to mention potential applications in healthcare, education, and business collaboration.   Natoewal says the uWand will be commercially available sometime in 2011 so, until then, if you haven't yet, go get yourself a Wii and get used to the intuitive controller experience that will soon take over your home electronics experience.   Incidentally, don't think is the last time Nintendo plans on delivering cutting edge technology to the consumer market - by the end of the year, it says it will be shipping a 3D version of it handheld DS gaming device.

When Will Network Operators Unleash the Real Power of Content?

May 14, 2010

Lately, we've been hearing a lot about the so-called three-screen strategies for integrating video content delivery between TVs, PCs, and mobile phones. It's a fantastic idea, sort of the video equivalent of FMC.   Alas, what has happened to FMC? Remember all the vendors talking about automatic handoffs between mobile and fixed networks? It's a great concept, but its point of failure is in the need for wireless and wireline carriers to cooperate to make it work.   The same holds for delivering video content to three screens - you need cable operators and wireless carriers to collaborate, and perhaps ISPs as well, depending on the end user's choice of providers. Certainly, it would seem the likes of Verizon and AT&T would have an advantage, given their service portfolios, but both have limited service areas, and AT&T has frequently struggled to deliver on expectations.   That said, if - and that's a big if - the network operators can play nice, the idea of an integrated video service would completely transform the customer experience.   I spent some time at Motorola's booth at The Cable Show this week taking a look at what it all will mean (someday) and, quite frankly, the three screens concept, leveraging the Motorola Medios Management platform is something people will fall in love with as quickly as they did their DVRs and Slingboxes (though I imagine the folks at Slingbox aren't all that keen on the three screens idea).   The concept of a single management platform to deliver content from various sources across multiple access networks to different devices, using rules and metadata to define profiles and content availability, means effectively that users will be able to select from live, VOD, time-shifted, and over-the-top content on their TVs (via STBs), laptops and PCs, and mobile devices. Ideally, this will even mean you can start watching a movie on one device, pause it, and later pick it up at the same point on a different device.   Some of the features I enjoyed in the demo included the ability to bookmark favorite content and types of content, live program restarting, social networking-type features and, of course, similar functionality across the different devices. But, perhaps the most useful is something many of us have become quite used to: a pointer-based remote control (think Wii), which makes screen navigation infinitely simpler and allows for sexier menus, not to mention putting an end to scrolling through the alpha to find what you're looking for.   I'm not convinced that the majority of users will be able to enjoy this kind of three screen freedom anytime soon, but given freedom and flexibility and pure viewing enjoyment it offers, I encourage Motorola, the rest of the infrastructure vendor community and, most importantly, end users to make it clear that this is what you expect. After all, why do people like flying on JetBlue? I doubt it's because of the blue potato chips; rather, they can watch what they are used to watching at home. Now think of being able to do that on your laptop or mobile phone anywhere. Now, you will be able to watch the first pitch of the Mets game while sitting in the new Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday afternoon this fall.

Joulex: Businesses Only Consume Energy Productively 20% of the Time

May 13, 2010

With all the focus on conserving energy - in the interest of saving a few budget dollars, of course - there are likely countless IT departments reminding their staff to turn off their PCs when they leave the office.    That's a start.   But, typically, PCs consume only about 7% of the overall IT energy in a business. What's more, Tom Noonan, president and CEO at Joulex, accurately notes that, with the proliferation of IP networking, more and more business technologies are connected via IP, which means that each of those network-connected devices should be able to be monitored and managed remotely, including the ability to monitor network energy consumption more accurately, either at the network level or at an individual device level.   Noonan, if you recall is the former chairman, CEO, and president of ISS, so he certainly comes with a solid pedigree in the networking space. He sold his security firm to IBM for $1.3 billion five years ago, after which, as he was leveraging the talents of some former ISS engineers looking to address some smart grid security issues, he uncovered a piece of data that was, on one hand, troublesome, but on the other, opened the opportunity to his new company, Joulex. That data suggested that the typical business consumes as much energy in a productive state as it does in an unoccupied, unproductive state.   The more significant data is that, according to Noonan, the typical business is only productively occupied 34 hours per week - about 20 percent of the time. Yet, the other 80 percent of the time, energy consumption doesn't drop much, largely because people (this includes IT staff) don't recognize all the devices that are constantly drawing energy, whether actively used or not.   To help relieve the strain on the power grids, and help businesses save on energy spending in the process, Joulex has developed a solution that collects near real-time data from the network (it updated every five minutes) to create energy profiles for different users and equipment, and then use those profiles to automate equipment shutdowns during unproductive periods.   For instance, in Germany, Siemens uses the solution in conjunction with employee badges, so that when an employee enters the building, all the technology he uses, including lighting, powers up. Likewise, when he leaves the facility, those same energy-consuming infrastructure elements power down so they are no longer consuming resources.   For a 5,000-user environment, Noonan suggests savings from personal technology alone can be as high as $500,000 or more (at 10 cents per kWh).   Of course, we know large enterprises represent a finite market, so the question is how to get the solution cost effectively to the SMB space, such as through the increasingly popular cloud model, which Noonan says is in the plans.   "I would love to get to the point where we have a multi-tenant cloud hosted version of the product," he said.   Check out my interview with Tom at Interop Las Vegas, where he talks about Joulex will help solve the fundamental challenge of lowering business energy consumption without impacting production.

Polycom Names New CEO - What's Next?

May 10, 2010

Since the news emerged that Cisco would be acquiring videoconferencing vendor, speculation has run rampant as to what the next move would be for the only major independent player left in the space - Polycom.   Reportedly, the Pleasanton, California-based company has been exploring its options with the help of Morgan Stanley, including the possibility of a sale of the company. In fact, the company was in discussions earlier this year to merge with Siemens Enterprise Communications, but those talks stalled last month. A Siemens deal would have been logical, bringing a vast voice and video communications portfolio to a seasoned unified communications product line.   Is today's news that Robert Hagerty is stepping down as CEO, president, and chairman of Polycom part of the company's move to the future? It would seem so, based on comments from new chairman David Dewalt, who had been Polycom's lead independent director, noting that new CEO and president Andrew Miller "has been transformative in leading Polycom's shift to a more customer-centric execution model, which has already resulted in significant growth for the company."   There is little question the Cisco/Tandberg deal placed immense pressure on the Polycom Board to develop a new future roadmap for itself, which has included forging strategic alliance with HP, former suitor Siemens Enterprise, and the #2 networking hardware manufacturer, Juniper Networks - in addition to existing partnerships with Microsoft, Avaya, Broadsoft, and IBM.   Despite relationships, the rumor mill continues to spin, looking for the next sign as to the direction Polycom will take. According to a Bloomberg report last month, figures from the 41 networking industry acquisitions over the past year suggest a Polycom acquisition could cost a bidder $3 billion. The   The question is, who will pay? What about HP?   It already bought smartphone maker Palm, and last week, TMCnet's Alice Straight suggested it could well be the Silicon Valley partner Sangoma has struck an OEM deal with for its NetBorder Express gateway cards.