article

Service on a Portal

Posted: 01/2001

Service on a Portal
Web-user Interface Enables Enhanced Communications

By Khali Henderson

Communications portal. What does that mean? If you think of Internet
telephony service providers such as Net2Phone Inc. (www.net2phone.com)
and PhoneFree.com (www.phonefree.com),
you’d be right–at least under the strictest definition.

Certainly by now, Webster’s wordsmiths would have added a few more entries,
including unified messaging and collaborative communications providers.

But experts say that even this broadened interpretation falls short of
capturing the label’s full intent, which might be described as
"personalized communications session management," to borrow the term
of IDC analyst Mark Winther.

In all fairness to our readers and etymologists alike, this definition of the
"communications portal" does not yet exist in a commercially available
form (although some upstarts are close). What does exist is an opportunity for
telecom service providers to embrace a truly sticky, revenue-generating service
delivery model.

Opening Market Opportunities

In the simplest of terms, the communications portal market includes those
companies enabling basic or enhanced communications services to be accessed via
a web-user interface, according to U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray (www.piperjaffray.com)
equity researchers Paul A. Boruta and Andrew Schroepfer (who has since left the
company).

"Admittedly, making phone calls from one’s own computer is not the Holy
Grail of communications," they note. "However, given the growth of the
Internet and its convergence with communications, the significant number of new
enhanced services over a PC interface validates an exciting and dynamic market
opportunity for communications portals."

They claim that among the advantages of the portal strategy are higher
service adoption rates due to web-user sophistication and repeated exposure to
service options. "One big thing risked by not having one’s own portal is
that services are so much more likely to be adopted in the web
environment," they state in their report on communications service
providers.


Screenshot: Service Creation Manager

In addition, Schroepfer and Boruta note that service providers can improve
cost structures by aggregating presentation, delivery and support for IP-based
communications services.

The basic communications portal strategy has been adopted by at least three
distinct groups–providers of net telephony, unified messaging and collaborative
tools–each of which offers a menu of communications capabilities to the user
(see "Commu- nications Portal Providers" table). While each group
offers a different core service, they have begun to borrow from each other’s bag
of tricks.


Table: Communications Portal Providers

PC-to-phone calling providers, for instance, are "adding communications
services such as conference calling, text chat, instant mail and unified
messaging," observes IDC analyst Elizabeth Farrand.

Despite the growing value proposition, early entrants have suffered an
ailment common to most startups–anonymity. To overcome this problem, most have
adopted a free service model and a viral marketing strategy. In some cases, this
has met with remarkable results. Dialpad.com Inc. (www.dialpad.com),
for example, reported 10 million users within a year of its launch. But alas, 10
million times $0 is still $0, so portals have had to develop and entice users
with premium services on a pay-per-use or subscription basis. While a domestic
Internet call might be free, for example, an international one will carry a
per-minute rate. Similarly, a paid web meeting might offer duration and
participant options not available from the free trial service.

These tiered pricing models have improved the financial picture for some
portal providers. According to IDC, nearly half–$96.3 million–of all revenues
were attributable to premium services. Ultimately, many ventures have had to
turn to selling their technology or platforms. Most net telephony providers, for
instance, will voice enable any corporate website or web storefront for
real-time customer service.

Increasingly, however, the selling has been to companies–telcos, ISPs,
Internet portals, and computer hardware and software makers–that are in a much
better position to leverage enhanced IP services into an established customer
base.

Patent-pending collaboration tools and IP-based network of WebEx Commu-
nications Inc. (www.webex.com) are being used
by telecom giant AT&T Corp. (www.att.com)
for its new AT&T Web Meeting Service launched in late August. The company
has a similar deal with Internet portal Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com).

Service providers are not the only ones getting in on the game. Hardware
manufacturer U.S. Robotics Inc. (www.usrobotics.com)
announced in October that it is bundling voice calling from Net2Phone and call
management from BuzMe.com Inc. (www.buzme.com)
into its Internet Call Modem.

Such a partnership provides multiple benefits, says Aurica Yen, a consumer
market analyst from the Yankee Group (www.yankeegroup.com).
"Besides providing guaranteed revenue sources to the two [service
providers], the bundling of capabilities into hardware is a low-cost tactic to
reach and to educate end users, not to mention utilizing third-party brand
strength," Yen says.

While co-branding and alternate channels are respectable strategies for
distribution, the resulting service offerings are a click-to-use icon or
computer key here and there. Adoption of the "communications portal"
strategy itself has not yet occurred outside the small but growing list of
entrepreneurial providers.

This may be due to a shortsighted view of the technology’s potential.

IDC analyst Winther says that its value lies "not in voice chat, price
arbitrage plays, communications features in service of advertising or product
sales," but in web-powered communications. "This," he says,
"leverages the capabilities of the Internet–easy-to-use graphical
interface, efficient one-click access to anything, universal browser and
universal IP infrastructure–to improve users’ control over their communications
and messaging services."


Table: Select Communications Portal Enablers

To illustrate this vision, Winther explains that in the same way that users
can create a personalized home page on their Internet portal, such as Yahoo! or
America Online Inc. (www.aol.com), they will
create and "use a personal communications hub to define the treatment of
their incoming and outgoing communications based on where they are and who is
calling or messaging."

Personalization

The development of a personal communications hub is at the core of a new
strategy called Service Agency being tendered by Ellacoya Networks Inc. (www.ellacoya.com).
The Service Agency model seamlessly connects customers with network, content and
application partners. To facilitate this strategy, the company has created what
it calls the Service Generation System. SGS is a directory-based platform that
serves as an overlay to a service provider’s existing broadband network and
enables them to offer services through a portal on an individualized,
self-service basis.

The SGS can customize services by demographic, community of interest or to
the individual user. A building-centric LEC (BLEC), for example, can tailor
services to the type of businesses or consumers it serves. An optical software
engine called PAD (personal application desktop) creates personalized user
service portals. When a user logs on, the dynamic portal generator retrieves
portal elements based on subscriber information stored in the directory and
renders them on the fly.

"When you have static portals, the hardship is that you have to rebuild
it for each customer," says Bill Clark, director of product management for
Ellacoya. In contrast, Ellacoya allows the user interface to be rendered in real
time, "relieving a tremendous support burden from the service provider’s
shoulders."

Furthermore, a GUI for provisioning literally allows a provider to drag and
drop to create service bundles for an enterprise client (see Service
Creation Manager
screen shot). Users also have the ability to enable or
disable functions.

The Service Agency model hinges on bringing in best-of-breed providers to the
table. To this end, Ellacoya also has assembled ASP Partners to provide
immediate service options for its service provider customers. Inaugural members
of the program, which was unveiled in mid-October, represent partners, such as
Sylantro Systems (www.sylantro.com), that
are focused on communications enhancing applications. Directory services and
Internet telephony, as well as news, video and business productivity
applications, are additional options.

By combining all of these functionalities, the communications portal is
transformed into the user’s preferred desktop, rather than a website to which
the user must decide to go. Ellacoya is working on integrating icons for
software resident in the PC or LAN onto the interface.

The presentation and delivery of services to a business or property also
offers revenue assurances to service providers that are not inherent in the
original communications portal model. Service providers can charge based on a
base package plus usage without being pressured into the free service model.

Further, notes IDC analyst Winther, integrating virtual PBX features along
with personalization, directories and content will enhance the customer
relationship and increase the cost of switching.

Ubiquity

While the web is a key and primary interface through which a communications
portal will be accessed, ubiquity resulting from device independence is
paramount to success, asserts Aymar de Lencquesaing, president of HotVoice
Communications International Inc. (www.hotvoice.com).
The communications ASP has built a platform and worldwide network from which it
enables other customer-facing companies to offer a suite of services, such as
Internet telephony, unified messaging, instant messaging and follow-me services.

He explains that a communications portal must offer a web, wireless and PSTN
interface. "There are arguments as to whether handheld [e.g., personal
digital assistants] or handsets [e.g., cellular] will win. To me it does not
matter; service providers need to make service available to people how they want
it," he says.

Winther says a user or service provider can determine which access/transport
network will be used based on consideration of such issues as quality, business
rules, footprint and cost. He also notes that deployment of effective voice
recognition and text-to-speech technologies will improve accessibility of
services from a phone.

De Lencquesaing says that emerging presence management techniques will enable
a whole new set of features. By establishing presence, he says, users know if
and when people come into the portal for instant conversation through voice or
text. A user can increase the success of his communication by merging presence
management with calendaring and call routing applications, he adds. On the
horizon, a geographic positioning system (GPS) will further automate presence
management by tracking the user by geographic location as well as device.

Positioning

As telecom service providers deploy (or retrofit) IP-based networks, they are
in a unique position to capitalize on the communications portal opportunity, but
they will not be unchallenged.

Existing entrepreneurial communications portals, ISPs and Internet portals
have the advantage of a more developed web presence and, in the case of national
ISPs and the portals, a sizable customer base.

Computer hardware and software providers also represent potential competitors
by virtue of their ability to embed communications features into hardware and
software that is being distributed to web-savvy users.

Khali Henderson is a contributing editor for PHONE+ magazine.


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