Skype boasts 30 million concurrent users

On its corporate blog Skype officially announced a new record of 30 million simultaneous users. And it still wants you to reach out and touch someone:

A few hours ago, Skype passed a new milestone. There were 30 million people, online on Skype, at the same time.

As we cut the (blue) cake at Skype HQ, it’s a good opportunity to remind you that if there’s someone in your life who doesn’t use Skype, there’s never been a better time to tell them about all the wonderful things you can do – video calling on computers, mobiles and TVs, great value calls to phones, instant messagingsending filesand more.

All of which helps you do things with the people who matter, even when you’re on the other side of the world – or right next door.

I don’t know about you, but just about everyone I know is a Skype user. There’s nobody else for me to convert.

With all the talk about unified communications, it appears that Skype would be the first to achieve mass adoption, albeit primarily among consumers. That’s not to say its features are not enterprise-ready, however. Skype has added group video and screen sharing — two common utilities popular among workers.

In an UCC world where vendors seem obsessed with interoperability, Skype’s unprecedented popularity is noteworthy because it’s always used proprietary technology. Yet that hasn’t stopped more users from using it. Which vendor today wouldn’t want to sell 30 million seats of its UC product, right?

Also, Skype didn’t have to make a tablet to push sales, either. Chew on that for a while.


Guest post: AT&T-Mobile and the Thank You Economy

Today’s guest post is from John Stepp, president of Free Tech Consultants, and his insight into the other aspect of the AT&T/T-Mobile deal: customer service.

Everything I read about the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile discusses market share, spectrum, overlap, consumers and anti-trust. I want to talk about something different: How AT&T can leverage the most important competitive differentiator that they are acquiring.

First, a little background…

I bought an unlocked Google G1 at launch two years ago from T-Mobile to learn the operating system I thought would be the most important for business over time. Satisfied with AT&T, I nonetheless had to leave to get the first true Google phone. Leaving AT&T proved to be difficult and time consuming. Every conversation with AT&T turned into a sales pitch to get me to stay, but provided little help. It took a lot of time in coordination with T-Mobile to move my land line and cell service to T-Mobile. The experience was upsetting.

When I bought my $540 unlocked Nexus One last January, I thought, ”Great! Now I have a superphone and can continuously comparison shop between T-Mobile and AT&T to get the best rates.” Instead, AT&T along with the other carriers, refused to pick up the Nexus One and there went my leverage to lower rates. Much to my surprise, every time I have called T-Mobile to check on lower rates, they seemed to fawn all over themselves to lower my bill. Instead of a sales pitch to spend more, they alerted me to potentially unauthorized charges from a spammer and credited my bill. My lower charges have completely paid for the phone, and I am not locked into any plan. I now have unlimited voice, domestic long-distance, data, and more text messaging than I can possibly use on an Android Gingerbread smartphone, plus a VOIP land line for under $100 a month (including junk fees and taxes). Thank you, T-Mobile (and Google)!

That brings us to the real point of the article. T-Mobile “gets” the Thank You Economy, the new book by Gary Vaynerchuk. The Thank You Economy discusses how social media is transforming the economy in many ways, but especially when it comes to customer service. When I toured the Tampa contact center of T-Mobile last summer, the culture of true customer service was evident everywhere. Well-paid high tenured professionals that were happy and motivated to delight their customers are the norm there. I quickly understood that my positive experience was not unique. It was a logical outcome of proper vision and execution on the part of T-Mobile. They obviously bought into the philosophy that customer service drives sales and maintains customers. Now will AT&T adopt this philosophy?

My recommendations for the new AT&T-Mobile are:

  • Give T-Mobile complete control of AT&T Wireless’ customer service.
  • Do not lay anyone off that is involved with customer service.
  • Announce to the world what you are doing and why.

This is not a knock on AT&T as much as it is a praise of T-Mobile. The AT&T Wireless people I have worked with and have met at the Wireless Technolgy Forum in Atlanta are true professionals that work hard to create the very best company that they can. My wife still uses her AT&T phone and we have had few issues with the network. If she wanted an iPhone, I would get it from AT&T.

But let’s face it. AT&T and T-Mobile both have good phones. One has less coverage and lower prices while one has more coverage at a higher price. They both have 4G capabilities. There are not too many big differences outside of their size. But like it or not, AT&T has at least a customer service perception problem that adopting the T-Mobile philosophy of customer service will solve. And by promoting the merger with the bullet points above, they have another reason to get the merger approved by the regulators. If they do this right, everyone will benefit.

Nu Echo partners with Loquendo for service expansion

During our meeting at SpeechTEK last year, one of the things I asked CEO Yves Normandin was expansion plans. Nu Echo is a highly respected speech technology company based out of Canada and has a talented team of folks that eat and breathe VoiceXML, TTS, VUI, ASR, etc., but the company definitely has room to grow in the U.S. market.

Normandin ended our meeting with a hint of “stay tuned” regarding my question. On Monday, March 21, I got my answer:

Nu Echo, the speech application company that delivers exceptional user experience and task completion rates, and Loquendo, the global speech technology company, today announced the launch of their new partnership, enabling the companies to offer North American customers speech application development, dialog design, porting and tuning services to complement Loquendo’s existing portfolio of highest quality multilingual technologies, for a simpler yet more effective and enhanced integration of speech.

This partnership reinforces the ongoing expansion of Loquendo’s North American presence. Partnering with such an expertise-rich company as Nu Echo will see significant advantage for enterprises in the contact center and speech-enabled application space. It will expand the service level for Loquendo’s partners in the U.S. and Canada, to include VoiceXML application development, grammar development for advanced speech recognition, dialogue and VUI design, TTS and ASR tuning, and so on.

Furthermore, thanks to this partnership, new Loquendo customers can now quickly and seamlessly migrate their existing speech-enabled applications, from the simplest to the most complex, and exploit the full benefits of Loquendo speech technologies, while safeguarding previous investments.

“Loquendo’s rapid North American expansion is creating a very strong and much-needed alternative in the speech technologies market,” said Yves Normandin, Chief Executive Officer of Nu Echo. “We have worked closely with Loquendo over the past 18 months and we have been highly impressed not only by the performance of their technologies, but also by the responsiveness and the quality of their customer support organization.”

“Nu Echo is one of the leading speech companies in the U.S. and Canadian markets, with a team of highly skilled personnel building on twenty years’ experience and proven expertise in the speech application development and professional services fields,” said Daniele Sereno, Vice President, Product Engineering of Loquendo. “Their ability to respond rapidly and effectively to customer requests, along with their unparalleled commitment and dedication to their work, means they are a choice partner to assist Loquendo in supporting our North American clients and partners.”


GNU Free Call takes on Skype

I love Skype. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of this communications tool. The software evolved from desktop-only to an app that also resides on your smartphone. Recent feature enhancements include desktop sharing and group video. The company has grown tremendously to a point that it hired a Cisco exec as CEO and plans to IPO this year.

But I also realize that it uses proprietary technology. It is voice-over-IP but it is not an open standard. Now a new open source project dubbed GNU Free Call will attempt to offer everything Skype has and then some: SIP adoption.

That’s a big “and then some”… An excerpt of its goal:

Our goal is to make GNU Free Call ubiquitous in a manner and level of usability similar to Skype, that is, usable on all platforms, and directly by the general public for all manner of secure communication between known and anonymous parties, but without requiring a central service provider to register with, without using insecure source secret binary protocols that may have back-doors, and without having network control points of any kind that can be exploited or abused by external parties. By doing so as a self organizing meshed calling network, we further eliminate potential service control points such as through explicit routing peers even if networks are isolated in civil emergencies.

That is quite ambitious, but I have faith in the open source community and will be tracking the project’s progress regularly.

Guest post: Vidyo positioning for the enterprise video revolution with VidyoRouter Cloud Edition and VidyoReplay

This is a guest post by John Stepp, president of Free Tech Consultants, from interviewing Vidyo at Enterprise Connect 2011. Vidyo was also present at VoiceCon 2010 and covered here.

Vidyo’s press release event at Enterprise Connect provided a glimpse of the hybrid cloud solutions that everyone is buzzing about.  Vidyo’s unique VidyoRouter Cloud Edition creates bandwidth rationing on demand for video.  Touting a five to ten times reduction on WAN bandwidth compared to dedicated connections, Vidyo aims to create the least costly mainstream enterprise video solution.  Their goal is to take a leadership position in the extension of video to more and more devices.  By allocating bandwidth when and where you need it, you can proliferate video to many more users in your organization or group.  As the smartphones, computers, tablets and desktop telephones get video enabled, the demand for bandwidth should explode.  By providing a way to maximize bandwidth utilization, they have created a much more appealing ROI.

Another release from the Vidyo Enterprise Connect press conference is the VidyoReplay, a video streaming appliance that allows Vidyo users to record and webcast to a variety of end points including hand held devices.  The nice thing about the product is that you do not need a proprietary player to view the webcast live or on demand.  The ability to affordably record and broadcast high quality video is another cost effective technology that lowers the ROI for ubiquitous video in the enterprise.  The sub-$10,000 price tag for VidyoReplay combined with the inexpensive videoconferencing portfolio can be a real compelling offer for businesses that are ready to start or replace a video for the enterprise strategy.

Of course, Vidyo is not going to win points for perfect interoperability with other platforms. Like Skype, they are unique.  Unlike Skype (which I use since it is free and my company is Free Tech Consultants), Vidyo’s H.264 SVC codec is as good as or better than the competing “standards”-based products. This means that if you select a Vidyo network corporate wide, you will get excellent video at a low overall price point.  Vidyo can connect to other videoconferencing and telepresence vendors, but just as with other vendor offerings, you lose some of the benefits.  You have to thoroughly evaluate the needs of an enterprise and the existing infrastructure to decide between Cisco, LifeSize, Polycom, Vidyo and other providers.  But if Vidyo has the most appealing solution, there is no reason to be concerned about their proprietary codec.

Vidyo has proven their staying power in the marketplace and have grown their market share.  Their cost to benefit ratio is compelling.  And the addition of VidyoRouter Cloud Edition and VidyoReplay is an excellent indication that they plan to continue to fill out their product line with user friendly cost effective video applications. Vidyo is well positioned to take advantage of the Enterprise Video Revolution that is just beginning to happen.

Here is the original raw Vidyo interview (80 MB).

An app as an interaction channel?

The call center reached its awkward adolescence years when it became known as the contact center. People would still say “call center,” but you try to correct them with “contact center.” It’s the time when there’s sort of an identity problem, when it wants to grow out of its call center shell and be treated like a contact center adult because there’s so much more it can do now. It’s no longer just calls. It can now deal with faxes, emails, and even tweets.

Or to use the catchphrase, multichannel interactions.

Many in the industry have observed this evolution. Many more are starting to realize the role of mobile devices during this time. The American Dialect Society deemed “app” the 2010 Word of the Year. Customers are interacting with companies through mobile apps on their smartphones and tablets. Just take a look at how many apps out there which are essentially iconized companies residing on the iPhone or Android screen.

So it was intriguing when I saw this on Tony Tillyer’s LinkedIn update:

After a period of study; having a direct CRM interface on any Smartphone App to provide access to Channels including Service Support, Ordering, Marketing and other Customer/Business specific tasks is something which appears to be missing, currently… Watch this space…. :)

In an IM chat later, he summed it up more concisely:

it’s more the ability for any App provider to have the ability to tie-in their App as an interaction Channel

Like any blogger in search of a good story, I probed for details. He didn’t give away much more except that he’s working with a partner and that a prototype has already been developed.

I may be completely off track in my understanding of his secret project, but now I can blame him because of our enigmatic encounter. In any case, I look forward to the debut…

IVR haters have another choice with FastCustomer

People love to hate, or hate to love, IVRs.

Thank you for calling blah-blah-blah, for sales blah-blah-blah, for billing blah-blah-blah, blah blah blah blah blah.

By this time you’ve probably already pressed the zero key on the dial pad in an attempt to speak with a live body. After all, the shortest distance between a customer and customer service is zero.

A few other companies have already exploited our love/hate relationship with the IVR: LucyPhone and Fonolo. Now there’s another app for that: FastCustomer.

With FastCustomer, you can use the website or install the iPhone (sorry, no Android or BlackBerry yet) app to reach a customer service representative without having to “stay on the line.” Come on, who wants to stay on the line anymore unless it’s in a life or death emergency. That’s so old school, especially when monthly minutes are limited. FastCustomer will let you pick the company, dial the number (bonus: it displays whether the company’s service department is open or closed), and call you back at a number of your choosing when an agent is on the other end of the line.

I tested the iPhone app and found that it performed as advertised. I picked a couple of companies to call, and in each instance got connected to a call when the agent was available. After picking the company to call I was able to exit the app and do whatever I needed to on my iPhone. The voice quality was good — just like any normal phone call on my iPhone.

Although FastCustomer keeps track of customer service business hours, it merely displays a “Closed” tag if it’s outside of business hours. Ideally the app could also display the actual business hours so the user can know when to make the next call.

I also found some quirks when canceling a call. Cancel works well if you’re still at the post-select screen with the big “Cancel this call” button. However, once you leave that screen and try to cancel a call at the “Recents” list, it was hit and miss for me. And if you happen to have cleared the recent list of calls, then there appears to be no way of canceling a call.

The app costs $0.99 and as of this writing there are 11 ratings (4.5 stars out of 5) in the iTunes App Store. The latest version 1.0.1 came out just March 14. Comparatively, LucyPhone came out in September 2010 and is free with about 150 reviews, and Fonolo came out in November 2010 and also free to download with over 200 reviews. In order for FastCustomer to gain fast traction it may need to rethink its pricing/marketing strategy in the face of two more popular competitors.