The goal of a unified communications initiative is to combine all the tools a business uses to communicate in a single application. Integrating UC features with existing business phone systems is nice, but nirvana would be to manage UC features collectively and to be able to easily switch from one to another, as needed. Free UC would be even better.
Forget what UC vendors say about the advantages of their products; it's more important what businesses think about their options. Surveys have shown that, for most business users, the Skype model is the best example of how UC should work. Skype provides voice, instant messaging (IM) and video, as well as collaboration extensions, and it is either free or low in cost. Business users more dependent on the telephone tend to prefer the Google Voice model because of its integration with the current phone network.
Neither of these tools is likely to be enough for the midsize or large business, but what about small businesses? If users feel that Skype and Google Voice are a good start, then the best way to approach free UC is to see what these two cloud-based communications models could do for a small business and if that is close enough to real unified communications for their purposes.
Comparing Skype and Google Voice free UC capabilities
No matter how good they are, the free-UC approach has its limits, and the two most popular frameworks, Skype and Google Voice, have different capabilities. Here's a closer analysis of what each has to offer:
More on free Skype and Google Voice UC
Has the traditional PBX left the building?
Who wants to use enterprise-issued UC tools?
The short answer on using Google Apps for remote communications
Skype's small business capabilities. Skype, which Microsoft acquired in 2011, is a community-based communication service that offers IM, voice and video, as well as a number of collaborative options. Users can connect via Skype user IDs and utilize all its features; they can also interconnect with the public switched telephone network (PSTN). The options are to call into a Skype-assigned (PSTN) number that then links to a Skype user ID, or to call out to the PSTN from Skype. IMs can be sent to mobile SMS numbers, but users can't receive an SMS in Skype.
The bottom line is that if all the people in a small business's circle of interaction are on Skype, the service offers good UC capability at no cost.
Google Voice's small business capabilities. Google Voice is primarily a voice call-management service, not a communications service. Like Skype, users get an assigned number that can be reached from the PSTN. Unlike Skype, with Google Voice one of several clients can receive the call, including a work phone, a home phone, a mobile phone or a chat client device. Calls can also be made from the Google number. Google's Chat (usually part of a user's Gmail screen) offers similar capabilities to Skype's IM, but it's not integrated as cleanly with Google Voice. To make voice calls, users can call from the Google Voice screen or from the Chat panel in Gmail.
The bottom line here is that the capabilities are similar but the package isn't as well integrated as Skype's.
Free UC features are best for internal communications, but what about external?
For in-company communication and collaboration, the Skype and Google suites both offer what is likely to be more than enough support for UC and collaboration needs. The complexities start when users want to communicate with people outside the company.
When businesses leave the traditional voice network, the following five important features go away, too.
- Lack of hunt-group and transfer features. Standard PSTN voice offers hunt-group calling -- where a single number will roll over through a series of lines. And most small businesses either have a small key telephone system or central-office PBX (Centrex) features for call handling once a call is taken. They can also transfer a call from an incoming line to any extension. All of these features are also standard with commercial UC/UCC products, but they're problematic with Skype's and Google Voice's offerings.
- Tying up the voice line and the number. Every call that is in progress ties up a voice line, but Google Voice and Skype tie up the number as well. The lack of multi-line hunt-group calling means that an incoming call will have to be handled on the exact number that the caller dialed rather than automatically rolling to another available extension. Someone who dials the number when it's tied up will either go directly to voicemail or generate a call-waiting signal. For businesses that direct calls to a specific person (a sales rep, for example) and don't get a lot of outside calls, this may not be an issue. For those who want a small call-center operation, Skype and Google Voice simply don't provide what's needed, and publishing a Skype user ID on a website will generate the same problem -- the first caller makes the user ID "busy" until the call is finished.
- Call-transfer costs. Even if tying up the called number is acceptable to a small business, transferring a call can also be problematic. The intuitive approach would be to run Google Voice or Skype calls through a key system, but unless the Google or Skype numbers are associated with real phone lines (for which the business would pay extra), the calls would come into the computer running the Google Chat or Skype client.
- Integrating with existing voice systems. Unlike commercial UC offerings that will almost always integrate with existing voice systems, neither Skype nor Google provide that integration, except through third-party products that are essentially "client-software-in-a-box" that convert a computer call to look like it's a PSTN line. In Skype's case, those products are at least available in the Skype Store. With Google Voice, the only product that appears to integrate Google Voice with a key system or PBX is the ObiTalk adapter from Obihai, which isn't referenced on Google's site. Still, using third-party adapters, it is possible to make either Google Voice or Skype service appear as a standard central office PSTN line and connect it to a key system or PBX. Small businesses with limited staff computer skills may need help with this, but for those with basic literacy, it shouldn't be a problem.
- Problems getting the 411. A final limitation with Skype and Google Voice is that numbers for these services may not appear in normal White Pages and Yellow Pages directories or be available via 411 calls. Companies that expect their customers to get contact information online won't have a problem with this, but small businesses expecting to get business from any form of directory listing should be certain their Skype or Google numbers appear.
Knowing Skype and Google Voice limits before making a commitment
A combination of Skype and Google Voice can completely replace both the PSTN and commercial UC/UCC products for some small business applications, but not all of them. Before committing to either one, it is critical to understand the limits of these services and review the incremental cost and benefit of fuller-featured commercial VoIP and UC/UCC offerings before making that final choice. No business, especially a small one, can afford to compromise its communication and collaboration.
Continue reading the corresponding parts in this series:
- Free collaboration tools a la Google spur better enterprise UC apps
- Skype vs. Google Voice feature-by-feature showdown
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecom and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecom strategy issues.