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IBM, Avaya deals signal IP telephony quality control's coming of age

IP telephony vendors, in a race to prove that their quality excels, are enlisting new allies.

Enterprises are weary of the limited visibility they have into the call quality of IP telephony, and leading vendors are responding, if recent call quality monitoring deals are any indication.

"Call quality hasn't always been very good," admitted Sara Radicati, president of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Radicati Group, a communications analysis firm. But call quality monitoring technology and the underlying IP telephony architecture that vendors sell have improved to the point where many enterprises now know not to settle for less than the best.

She said this shift explains the changing landscape of call quality partnerships.

"Vendors like IBM and Avaya are recognizing that the technology has moved ahead in some cases, and better deals are to be had with better partners," she said.

Both IBM and Avaya recently announced new partnerships with call quality monitoring vendors, in some cases embedding monitoring tools deep within their infrastructure.

Avaya's deal, announced earlier this month, will provide all Avaya Communications Manager customers a free license for Integrated Research's Prognosis voice quality monitoring tools, which Integrated Research describes as an "end-to-end" solution.

"Avaya's selection of Prognosis VoIP Monitor for inclusion with every shipment of Avaya Communication Manager proves that we deliver extensive operational insight for managing an Avaya IP telephony service," said Integrated Research CEO Mark Brayan in a statement.

IBM's deal doesn't pre-package a quality monitoring tool, but it does allow for deeper integration of Psytechnics' portfolio into IBM's Lotus Sametime telephony offerings.

"I don't think IBM ever uses the word 'exclusive,' but I think we're the only partner of that type in the Sametime Unified Telephony architecture, and I hope it stays that way," said Joe Frost, VP of marketing for Psytechnics. "We'll be recommended as part of the solution, and almost certainly we'll be embedded in the endpoint agents in the Sametime clients."

But while voice quality control is becoming more critical for enterprises looking to move to, or keep, IP telephony deployments, the major vendors have been happy to give third parties a wide berth in the ecosystem, as opposed to trying to muscle them out with their own solutions.

"I think [IP telephony vendors] will always make some efforts to make their own [quality monitoring] technologies, but I think they recognize they're too big to be in these specialized areas, so it makes sense to rely on these specialized partners," Radicati said.

She said the IP telephony vendors have their plates full with trying to capture the channel market, and strong partnerships were often a lower-hanging fruit than developing new, original voice quality tools.

In the third-party quality control market, the technology has become increasingly sophisticated after originally focusing on IP latency and dropped packets to determine whether a call was going sour, often in retrospect and often after user complaints were flooding in.

Today, the focus is on real-time reporting and more sophisticated call quality measurements.

Psytechnics, for example, is a company born out of research done by BT in the early 1990s, which focused on how the ears perceive sound and the range of natural tones the human voice makes, more akin in many respects to psychology and physiology than traditional packet detective work.

"What came out of that R&D was effective software tools and algorithms that [let us] look at a live audio or video call," Frost said. "And we can analyze it in real time and see if they had a good experience or if there was a problem that was distracting them."

These different approaches to an age-old problem are required because poor quality phone experiences can severely hurt the bottom line, even if the company is able to shave telephony costs slightly.

"If the user is not happy and not having a good experience, it doesn't matter how much money is spent on the infrastructure ... that has to be fixed," Frost said. "We have a big problem, and we're going to have to fix that."

As these deals are forged, there is plenty more market share to be captured, Radicati said.

"Companies are at different stages of development when they're thinking about this," she said. "Some do [quality monitoring] and others don't realize yet that they should."

That's changing quickly, she said, as Microsoft's Office Communications Server voice campaign stirs traditional IP telephony vendors back onto the offensive in an effort to differentiate themselves from Microsoft, which has come under fire for being less reliable.

"Microsoft is very aggressively ignoring the criticism about [its] voice products and acting like the rest of the world doesn't exist," Radicati said. The benefit, she added, was that Microsoft was creating real buzz in the market for IP telephony in general, and if savvy vendors can differentiate themselves with guaranteed quality, they could actually profit from Microsoft's attacks.

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