Office Space News
Published April 14th, 2011 by Jennifer LeClaire
Alon Cohen is an entrepreneur, inventor and is widely recognized as one of the creators of the Voice over IP industry. He’s also executive vice president and CTO of Phone.com, which offers affordable VoIP phone services for small business, home business or personal use.
Cohen joined Phone.com after founding and managing a successful series of recent business ventures, including BitWine and RemoteAbility. Cohen was the co-founder of VocalTec Communications, the first company to provide Internet voice technology worldwide, which in 1996 was one of the earliest successful Internet IPOs. As an innovator Cohen holds four U.S. patents on different communications technologies, including the “Audio Transceiver” (US Patent 5,825,771) which is the basis for Voice over the Internet (VoIP) technology.
aBetterOffice.com caught up with Cohen to discuss his early vision for VoIP, why and how workplaces should be using VoIP today, the barriers to adoption, and VoIP’s role in the future of office communications.
aBetterOffice.com: You founded VocalTec in 1989. At that time, did you see where all this was heading?
Alon Cohen: When Lior Haramaty and I founded VocalTec in 1989 we dealt with adding audio to a PC. In essence, we were building the first sound cards for the then-emerging PC market. Back then, people asked us if we could get the PC to show colors other than green before we offer them audio.
Our vision was all around the audio space and that it would complement any application on the PC from presentations, to games, to data kiosks, to shopping mall signs and much more. Hence, at that time we focused on the sound card, making it work in the background (pre-Windows), audio editing software, and enabling blind people to use the PC by adding screen-reading capabilities. We even went as far as developing our own Hebrew text-to-speech for Israeli army veterans who lost their eyesight while serving their country.
However, at some point two Chinese entrepreneurs with manufacturing capabilities joined American marketing money and together created what later became Sound Blaster. This pulled the rug under our feet.
This is when we decided to circle back to what we knew best, which was communication, audio and computers. We opened our ideas drawer, which we prepared ahead of time just for this situation, and decided that we would bet on the fact that every computer would have audio and that we should focus on an application (rather than the hardware) that any user will need—a phone.
The decision was made and we started working on the first Voice Over Novel networks product. The minute that we realized where the market really was is when we started getting calls to our support team asking why the system we built for Office use does not work between France and England.
At that moment, around 1994, we knew we had to make it work over the largest widest network we could find, the Internet. We had to make it downloadable, software only, and make sure we help people find each other. When we launched the first Internet Phone (or iPhone as we named it then) during February 1995, we knew we had a winner.
aBetterOffice.com: Where are we in the adoption of VoIP? Is this still the early stages, for example, or are we approaching mainstream penetration?
Alon Cohen: VoIP is mainstream. It comes in different forms, though. Almost any PBX you buy today for almost any size office will use VoIP internally, and most likely a SIP trunk to connect to the outside world. Old existing PBXs are retrofitted by adding a VoIP front-end (if not discarded and replaced) to connect to the outside using VoIP SIP trunks. Carriers use VoIP on the back end to save on long distance links and try to consolidate all their networks to VoIP. Many new offices choose to use hosted VoIP solutions to skip the need to install expensive hardware. Even traditional telecom resellers now gear up and switch to selling hosted VoIP realizing the TDM and analog markets are declining fast. As predicted by few analysts, the VoIP market is poised to double itself by 2015.
aBetterOffice.com: How should workplaces be using VoIP today?
Alon Cohen: In my mind, and obviously I have some bias here being the executive vice president and CTO of Phone.com, hosted solutions are the way to go. Get rid of the old PBX, beef up your Internet connection it is good for productivity anyway, and switch to hosted VoIP PBX solutions like those offered by Phone.com.
aBetterOffice.com: What are the obstacles or barriers for small businesses adopting VoIP, as you see them?
Alon Cohen: The only obstacle today is your local Internet connection. If you get a decent business-oriented cable internet link you should be fine. I always recommend installing separate networks for the voice and data because the cost of bringing in another cable modem is so slim today and the benefit of not degrading voice quality when few people at the office decide to see Netflix during work hours is nice.
Other than that, there are really no obstacles. If you can get good quality Internet connectivity, do not even think twice. The benefits in any respect are much greater than any minor hiccup you introduce by relying on the public Internet to carry your phone calls. You do need to make sure you select a reputable VoIP service provider that provides good customer support. So do your homework reviews before you select one.
aBetterOffice.com: How is Phone.com working to overcome those barriers?
Alon Cohen: We built a lab in San Diego to help us debug common network problems. We are installing the common network equipment in our lab and we document every step needed to make that equipment compatible to a hosted VoIP network. If an agent installs a router and experiences funny behavior of the phones, we first ask what router is used and then send him or her a list of configuration points to set (or avoid setting). In most cases that solves all the problems in an instant. Many equipment providers send us their network equipment or IP Phones to test and we are gladly investing the time to document the required configurations. We even work with cellular phone manufacturers, soft phone manufacturers, and mobile app developers to make sure VoIP is natively supported on mobile handsets.
aBetterOffice.com: How will workplaces be able to use VoIP in the future? How will the technology evolve?
Alon Cohen: Most service providers now add APIs (Application Programming Interface), which will enable enterprise software developers to integrate VoIP into their enterprise applications. Hosted PBX providers gear up and add HD voice support and video conferencing support. Phone.com was one of the first, if not the first, to offer HD voice quality phones, and conferencing services. As cell phones and iPads add more capabilities, they become the VoIP end-point of choice. I use my iPad today as my VoIP Phone and speakerphone when I am roaming about the house and not near my desk at my home office.
Since VoIP supports Text (SMS) and other features that were once unique to the cellular world, VoIP has become more pervasive than any other telecom technology in the last decade.
One interesting use I see is for people who do not need a physical office and can use shared space. With VoIP, those users are not limited to any one physical Location and can move the phone to any office they desire around the world without any configuration changes. Imagine the flexibility that brings to small or large businesses that need global presence. It is just unimaginable.