May 2010

"Communication is the real work of leadership."

Nitin Nohria, Harvard Business School

For technology companies seeking to harness powerful open source technologies, few can argue against the usefulness of modern Web 2.0 platforms. Considering how ubiquitous the Internet has become, an entrepreneur would certainly be ill-advised to not use some Web 2.0 platform to facilitate access to Communication Enabled Applications (CEA).

This article enumerates the lessons learned by one startup in order to demonstrate the need for a balanced approach to CEA to facilitate access to untapped markets.

Preparing for CEA

The overall premise of CEA is simple but comes with one important requirement: company-wide data coherence. CEA technology cannot possibly bear fruit in a company environment where the data is a mess. Examples of non-coherence include dozens of spreadsheets emailed around, printed forms manually entered by staff, and databases that occasionally talk to one another via import and exports. Such painful problems must be addressed before a company can consider embarking in the CEA space.

Once information is coherent and the company has centralized its data in a robust and secure database, CEA benefits become possible. By adding links to employees, suppliers and partners into the database, the company can become leaner and more responsive as data duplication is eliminated between parties. The promise of the paperless office begins to bear fruit with company contacts, and the firm finally becomes a candidate for real scalability and global success.

Rich Internet Application frameworks such as SmartClient or GWT can be used to implement a secure communication link with external contacts using highly interactive web pages, enabling access to company contacts and actual customers. Now that simple web links can point to highly interactive applications, a site that provides a quality interactive experience is much more adept at converting the passerby into a potential customer.

Customer buying patterns are pointing toward an expansion in web-based transactions, versus the traditional brick and mortar model. Most companies would curtail their own growth by not leveraging web-based CEA technology to reach the new generations of customers, whose first step when needing a product or service involves a time-saving scan with a search engine.

Once a good Web 2.0 platform has been integrated into a company's system, the benefits of the company's coherent data systems to reach even more people can be extended with the telephone. Why invest in this older technology? Compared with the interactivity and delivery bandwidth of a quality Web 2.0 interface, a voice interface is a limited interaction method and the restrictions inherent in the medium can be frustrating. Nonetheless, the telephone is a trusted and well understood tool, and its inclusion in your CEA portfolio can affect how your offering is perceived by the mainstream consumer.

Benefits of Integrating Telephony

Our startup company felt its marketing message left many people indifferent to our offering. Seeking to improve the spontaneous appeal of our publicity message, we created a rough telephony demo and proceeded to observe the reactions to our new marketing material. We were profoundly surprised to find that phone features are:

  1. In high demand: potential customers were much more excited at a rough demo of simple phone interactivity features than many of our Web 2.0 features.

  2. Reassuring: phone access is available and reliable while the Internet is not. For mission critical companies, forcing your customers to use the web means gaps in your service to them.

  3. Scalable: be it an automated 1-800 number or an automated incident call system, modern telephony ecosystems can deliver features that can free your staff from time-wasting calls.

  4. Easy to sell: entrepreneurs should note that many potential customers have difficulties distilling Web 2.0 features to tangible benefits in their lives. Telephone features are easy for customers to understand and pay for.

The bottom line of our investigation: a rough demo of phone features gathered more attention from potential customers than the snazzy web platform we had invested years constructing. Because our new pitch now involved a tool that was readily understood, the perceived value was much higher and our marketing collateral became more concise and effective.

This grounding effect to the mainstream customer was so significant that our new phone features take a commanding portion of the pitch we give potential investors. Because of these features, we're now perceived as being able to finally reach the mainstream, not just the early adopters.

If your company finds itself with lukewarm market interest, consider adding some phone features to observe if mainstream customers are able to relate to your offering in a more intimate manner. With so many products and services offered by the global economy, any feature of your offering that utilizes this trusted old tool makes it easier for potential customers to map features to benefits, and may become a powerful differentiator in your target market.

Be it a dial-in 1-800 number providing customers key information or automated calls delivering key business events, phone features can in many cases bring extra value to a CEA portfolio and further help distinguish an organization from its competitors.

Telephony Obstacles

Our company incurred many setbacks as it discovered that entering the brave old world of telephony is difficult. There is a world of difference between making test calls on a quickly installed asterisk system and developing a robust and scalable telephony platform that will integrate into your corporate CEA infrastructure. Invest your time in the wrong part of the asterisk technology tree and you can pay dearly later on attempting to increase the robustness and scalability of your system.

While asterisk dominates the open source telephony world, the phenomenal business success of Digium has brought about a plethora of partner companies offering their wares to the asterisk ecosystem. It can be difficult at first to separate the obsolescent from the leading-edge, and getting a sense on how to reach best practices is nearly impossible without someone who understands the field.

Here are seven lessons we have learned over the years:

  1. The asterisk ecosystem is vast: take time to get oriented with the many companies and groups that make the ecosystem powerful and dynamic. As you encounter an unrecognized technology, take the time to research and get oriented about its relationship to the ecosystem.

  2. Start with a good footing: few users build asterisk boxes from scratch. Trixbox, PBX In a Flash and Digium's AsteriskNOW are the top Asterisk distributions and each is well worth your study and consideration.

  3. Find a supportive community: a community of enthusiasts can greatly ease adoption pains. Locate forums early on and learn from the technical savvy of its members.

  4. Some parts of the asterisk technology tree are antiquated: for instance, the dialplan asterisk programming language is a poor development platform to build robust bridges to CEA systems. AGI, FastAGI and AMI are more robust platforms to programmatically control asterisk using your favorite language and development environment.

  5. Enlist the help of someone who's done this before: a few billable hours at the beginning of your evaluation can mean thousands of dollars saved later on, especially if you adopted the wrong approach to solve early needs. Enlist an expert who will listen to your needs and steer you toward the best techniques.

  6. Ramp up with an expert by your side: it is one thing to get a good asterisk-to-CEA box handling a few dozen calls and another thing entirely to scale up to handle the world. Scalability issues are understood in the technical forums and some expert advice at the beginning can steer you toward the right tools and hint at the most cost-effective services needed to host your telephony servers. A not-for-profit CEA ecosystem such as Coral CEA can be instrumental in this regard.

  7. Experiment and have fun: you now have the power to surpass systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. Gain energy, enjoyment and confidence by focusing on fun ways to ramp up your mastery of asterisk. For example, try some of Nerd Vittles ideas while you evaluate what the technology can do. Perhaps some of these techniques can provide value to your customers.

Closing Thoughts

While the full promise of open source CEA development is only available to companies that have database coherency, the benefits of CEA are too significant for any company to ignore. Operating a company where the data is a mess is not only crippling to scalability and growth, it also prevents the best elements of CEA technology from becoming possible.

By providing many of the tools for maximizing the benefits of CEA, be it the integration of telephony features with asterisk, the re-structuring of company documents with the Alfresco content management system, or the integration of various data sources with the MySQL open source database, open source technology continues to deliver an unbeatable value proposition. No company should ignore the remarkable benefit to cost ratio that open source solutions can bring to the CEA space.


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