Monday, June 26, 2006

For the last week, I’ve been wondering what Microsoft would announce today, at their Microsoft Unified Communications Group Strategy Day (what a mouthful, eh?). You see, ever since Ina Fried wrote her piece titled Microsoft Aims to End “Phone Tag” on, people have been phoning me and asking what I thought of it. My guess was that there was more than a little hyperbole in the announcement — after all, phone tag is caused by the precise fact that people don’t want to be reached at a particular time. No piece of technology is going to change that.

Moreover, Steve Ballmer has been telegraphing the company’s intent on this for a while. Last December he told an Ottawa audience that “In 10 years time, your telephone will know which calls are important to take.” I sent him mail afterward congratulating him on our shared vision. And, I offered to give them a hand. After all, when it comes to that particular vision, iotum has a little bit of expertise.  It’s what we do — make your phone ring when it’s important to take the call, and have the call handled some other way when it can wait…Since we started coming out of stealth in the fall of last year, we’ve been named Product of the Year by Internet Telephony, DEMOgod at Spring DEMO 2006, been one of the Business 2.0 Next Net 25, one of the Branham Group’s Top 25 IT Up and Comers, and most recently we were given the 3M Canada Company Emerging Technology Award as the top emerging technology company in Canada.

So naturally, with all the hoop-de-doo last week, it made me wonder how close to Steve’s “10 year vision” the company has gotten.

In this morning’s Microsoft Plans to Blend Phones With Computers, John Markoff revealed a little more information, positioning the announcement as essentially a rebranding of Exchange, and Microsoft as late to the field. It began to feel a little disappointing after the buildup. Indeed, judging by the fact that none of the products announced will be available until Q2 2007, there is a certain feel of desperation in their strategy. A cynic might accuse them of spreading a little FUD to freeze the market for a bit. That was the view of some others, too:

“We’ve been far ahead of Microsoft in these technologies,” said Ken Bisconti, I.B.M.’s vice president for workplace, portal and collaboration products, speaking from Cambridge, Mass.

“Microsoft might have realized that there are a lot of people who have seen this idea,” said Mark Spencer, president of Digium. “They want to get the message out there that they have a strategy.”

Ouch, Mark… that’s harsh!

When the announcement came, it was a damp squib. Microsoft will rename Exchange Live Communication Server as Communications Server, and add telephony features to Communicator, and other products. It’s an integration announcement, as opposed to a dramatic new direction — a reprise of the 1993 announcement that created Microsoft Office out of Word, Powerpoint, and Excel. Interestingly, this tactic may backfire for them this time around. Today there’s much more focus on open standards. The idea that you must buy all of your infrastructure from a single vendor just isn’t palatable for many companies today. Certainly, that is the view expressed by TMC’s Tom Keating in his coverage of today’s announcements.

If there’s any take away from this event, I would argue that it’s that Microsoft has PBX manufacturers squarely in its sights. In fact, at the event this afternoon, Microsoft VP Anoop Gupta even acknowledged that the company expected some customers would abandon their PBX’s in favour of server based solutions. At the CTO level in most major PBX manufacturers organizations, there is recognition that the infrastructure components are becoming a commodity. With Asterisk, and other open source PBX products out there, there is simply no need to spend 10’s of thousands of dollars on a proprietary Nortel, Avaya, or Mitel PBX. This is forcing PBX manufacturers to go through a very similar process of introspection to carriers. As one high level exec at one of these manufacturers told me, “Open Source is forcing us to focus on value added applications”. Well, Open Source isn’t the only issue. Add Microsoft to the mix now. Add IBM too, because immediately following Microsoft’s announcements, IBM made their own announcements, including the fact that they were partnering with several Microsoft competitors, and would ship by this summer, a full three quarters ahead of Microsoft.

Today’s proprietary PBX manufacturers are like the proprietary word processor manufacturers of 30 years ago. Some survived by moving to the PC platform, but most (does anybody remember Wang, for instance?), failed. Hopefully they’ve learned the lessons of yore…

Does this impact iotum? Not really. First, Microsoft is playing exclusively in enterprise, and we’re not. Moreover, none of these products will ship for another year. And, perhaps most tellingly, they likely have swiped a few of our ideas, but the implementation is, frankly, simplistic. No doubt it will improve, but that will be sometime after the 2007 launch.

From the Microsoft Communicator Fact Sheet, there is a short paragraph buried deep in the document:

Enhanced presence awareness and control. Communicator 2007 provides users with granular control over their presence information; for example, a company CEO can define who in her address book can see her availability and presence. Communicator 2007 also recognizes presence information for remote team members, partners and customers over a broad range of devices, applications and networks.

Microsoft VP Anoop Gupta provided more detail in the Q&A, when one gentleman stood to ask a question about why applications can’t do more sophisticated things with presence. Anoop answered that:

  1. Applications are starting to automate the setting of presence — when you set the Out of Office message in Outlook, it will set presence to away. Get on the telephone, and presence will set to on the phone. How, however, do you deal with users that you want to express different states to — busy to my boss, but available to my wife?
  2. Applications are starting to give users more control over their reachability, doing a better job of helping users to preserve privacy. Communications Server will allow users to have up to four levels of privacy — for example: immediate colleagues, divisional, across the company, and so on. Differing amounts of information might be revealed, depending on the relationship. What part of my organization does my family belong in, I wonder? That, of course, is the peril of a strictly hierarchical relationship system.
  3. Presence itself will be a platform component built on an XML infrastructure, and customizable by third parties.

In fact, I think that Microsoft’s entry has the potential to be very good for iotum. It validates what we’re doing, but their vision is still a “10 year vision– so far away that there’s no near term threat. If anything, it could trigger a wave of consolidation in the nascent VoIP apps business as competitors snap up smaller players like iotum and Tello in order to buttress themselves against the eventual Microsoft assault.

In the meantime, it’s probably time to dust off the LCS integration we did last summer. It’s great that Steve and Anoop share our vision, but it looks as if the folks in Redmond are going to need some help to achieve it.


Nokia's N91 Music Phone

by alec on June 26, 2006

N91 PhotoNokia’s latest salvo in their ongoing efforts to transform the humble mobile phone into something more is the N91.  This slick product combines mobile phone, camera, and a music / video player with 4G of storage into a bright and shiny chrome-laden package. At $599, it has just been released in the United States, but not yet here in Canada.

There is much to like about this package, and many improvements over the predecessor N90 and N70.  Setup, for instance, was a breeze.  I simply told the telephone I was in Canada, chose Rogers as my carrier, and the correct settings were applied.  Wireless access points, network passwords — all worked correctly.  In comparison, I’ve never been able to configure more than rudimentary data access with the N70 or N90.

The N91 is fast, too, when compared to predecessor phones.  It boots up faster, it synchs faster, and the camera is faster.  It can even take passable action shots. 

Nokia has also finally switched to a standard USB connector for data exchange, and a standard 3.5 mm mini jack for headphones.  Power, however, is still provided through their proprietary interface.  It’s a step in the right direction, but combining power and data on the USB cable would still be preferable.  

The Music Player is fabulous. It’s capable of synchronizing with either iTunes, or Windows Media Player 10, and can play music in most popular formats including AAC, MP3, and WMA.  It also has a Music Shop (not yet available in Canada), so you can purchase tracks over the air. The included earbuds produce a rich sound, but more importantly (in a departure for Nokia) use a standard 3.5mm plug, so you can substitute any headphones.  With equalizer controls, and an optional signal processing algorithm to increase the stereo effect, it almost feels as if you’re in a concert hall. Nokia has included a 4G hard disk, which they claim is good for up to 3000 songs.  I got about 500 onto it before it ran out of room, but there were a nice selection of video’s from last summer’s Live8 concerts already pre-installed, which were likely taking up some room. I also use very little compression when I rip CDs. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you compress your music.

The Camera is the now ubiquitous 2 megapixel unit which Nokia has put on the N70 and N90 as well.  It’s faster than predecessors, which means faster zoom and better ability to take action shots.  It’s also capable of storing photos and videos to the hard disk, which is a welcome improvement over the memory cards used in the N70 and N90.  Curiously, however, Nokia has omitted a flash, and dumbed down the camera software dramatically.  The result?  Well, it’s not as good a still camera as either of the other two NSeries phones.  For example, it has a lot of difficulty with low light shots, or shots taken at extremes of zoom.  The two photos below were taken at 19:21 hours yesterday, one with no zoom, and one with 3.5x digital zoom.  All still photos taken with zoom, except in the brightest sunlight, darkened this way. 

Toby Ginger

I did not, however, notice this darkening problem with video.  In fact, for video, the N91 is a better product than either the N90 or N70, due to the speed of the camera and the zoom. 

Phone with slider openThe Phone features are the hidden feature in this, er… phone.  Tucked away behind a slide-off panel, they are roughly the same as prior NSeries phones.  No surprises.  Users with fat fingers may find the N90’s broad buttons more to their liking, but I found the size quite serviceable.  You wouldn’t want to do extensive text messaging, but it’s probably good enough for most people.

Like the N70, and unlike the N90, the N91 has a vibrate setting, which makes it useful in a business setting.  In addition, it has a new setting which vocalizes the caller ID of the person calling.  This is slick.  While the ringtone is playing, a little mechanical voice announces who is calling.

The Internet features include the ability to browse via WiFi access points, and a new browser.  The WiFi is very nice.  I configured both access points at home very quickly, and was downloading ringtones, graphics, and so on in seconds, all without incurring any airtime charges.  The new browser is a terrific improvement over the prior browser, including a cursor which can be manipulated by the joystick on the device, and the ability to see a zoomed-out view of the page, so you can quickly jump to where you want to go.  Moreover, this is a place where the speed of the N91 really shines.  Amongst mobile web browsers, this is the one to beat. 

One additional, and very intriguing, internet feature is the inclusion of a SIP client.  I haven’t yet tried this, but when combined with an IP PBX, and WiFi, this promises to give you a single converged handset useable at the office, or outside.  It appears to have been a last minute addition, however, because nowhere in the documentation provided is it mentioned. Nor, for that matter, is it mentioned on the Nokia website.

There are still gotchas which show that Nokia has a ways to go as it matures into a software company.  Amongst them: 

  • The PC Synch application is better than before, but still not as capable as RIM or Microsoft products.  It’s slow, and there are overlooked details — for instance, how do I reset every item on the handset?
  • The CD provided with the package would not run on my PC more than once.  I installed most of the software, but was unable to install a utility to convert MP3 files to AAC, which I wanted to try.  The installation program crashed every time I tried to run it from that point forward. 
  • The system software allowed me to specify that I lived in Ottawa, but then insisted that this was in GMT -4 timezone (Ottawa is GMT -5).  The good news is that the timezone shift bug which was present in the N70 seems to have been fixed, and it now doesn’t duplicate calendar entries when you change time zones.
  • There still doesn’t seem to be any indexing of address book entries.  I first noticed this with the N90. With 3000+ address book entries, this is a problem for me.  Looking up the contact details for a person who’s name begins with R, for instance, means a long wait while the phone scans the database looking for R’s, before I can proceed.  Neither RIM, nor Microsoft have this problem on their smartphones. 
  • After a while the browser complained it was out of memory, necessitating a reboot of the phone.
  • The older media application searches the hard disk for clips, etc, every time they open, rather than indexing.  It’s very slow. 

All in all, I like this phone a lot.  I’m really enjoying its ability to play music.  The industrial design is fabulous, and as phones go, the Nokia phone software is excellent.  The PIM software has also improved from previous versions, most notably in the area of synch.  Disappointing to me, however, were the compromises Nokia chose to make with the camera.  It puts customers in the position of having to choose the N90 for its camera, or the N91 for music, when what you want is the best of both.

Except, of course, if you’re primarily shooting video, in which case the N91 can do it all…


Buffet Giving It Away

June 26, 2006

The top story on Techmeme this morning is Warren Buffet’s decision to give his fortune away, much of it to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Buffet’s reasoning for supporting the Gates Foundation?  The organization was at scale, with great leadership.  In otherwords, in keeping with his own management philosophies, Buffet chose not to create […]

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