A Year in SMB

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More options are always a good thing, and in that sense, 2017 was a good year for small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) seeking new business communications solutions. Market statistics vary, but all agree that the SMB opportunity is a massive one, a multi-billion-dollar annual market opportunity in the U.S., for example, that is estimated at more than half of the country’s telecom spend. SMBs also drive the UK economy, with about 96% of businesses in the UK employing fewer than 10 people. In the Canadian market, very small businesses with fewer than eight extension users are said to represent some 75% of the businesses there. Adding to that, research firm Gartner forecasts that globally end-user spending on unified communications (UC) will reach approximately $43.5 billion by 2021.

Not surprisingly then, a significant number of business communications vendors zeroed in on the SMB opportunity in 2017, introducing a new SMB-focused unified communications as-a-service (UCaaS) offering or a new small-scale IP-PBX system during the year. As expected, several of the new SMB solutions for call control fall into the cloud-based, as-a-service telephony/UC category, but there were a number of new on-premises phone systems as well. This lines up with a Nemertes study of 800 companies conducted in second quarter 2017. While companies are certainly evaluating cloud-based UC solutions, many are opting to stay with an on-premises system, particularly when cost savings are the greater concern.

It is important to note that vendors introducing on-site IP-PBX hardware typically support a full spectrum of deployments, including cloud, premises and hybrid arrangements that involve a combination of on-site equipment and hosted services. They are covering all bases by helping their customers protect existing telephony equipment investments, while allowing them to take advantage of pay-as-you-go hosted services, if desired, for new locations or for advanced applications – a smart move as not every business is ready for the cloud.

Here is a sampling of new SMB offers that crossed our research radar in 2017 (listed in order of roll-out):

Epygi QX20 and QX500
Epygi released two new IP-PBX models in mid-March 2017, the entry-level Epygi QX20 for very small offices (to 32 users) and the Epygi QX500 for mid-size offices (to 500 users). The new models fill gaps in the earlier line of “QX” business telephony systems which includes the QX50 IP-PBX (to 50 users), the QX200 (to 200 users) and the QX3000 for mid-range and larger enterprises (to 3,000 users). Epygi will be jumping into the cloud market soon with new cloud-based and hybrid solutions, but continues to find demand for its economical, all-in-one premises-based equipment. The low-end QX20 has an MSRP of only $385.

Cisco Business Edition 4000
Cisco expanded its Business Edition family of all-in-one communications platforms in April, introducing the Cisco Business Edition 4000 for SMBs with fewer than 200 devices. Business Edition 4000 is a voice-centric telephony appliance for simple office communications. The system is deployed on-premises, but managed in the cloud via a hosted management portal with intuitive menus designed to simplify system deployment and provisioning. Business Edition 4000 runs on one of Cisco’s newer ISR 4000 series routers and replaces the company’s earlier Business Edition 6000”S” introduced in 2015 for SMBs and branch offices in the 25-150 user range.

Accent VoiceONE Business Edition
Accent Communication Services expanded its VoiceONE business telephony offering in June with a more affordable option for SMBs in North America, the Accent VoiceONE Business Edition. This Asterisk-based solution supports essential telephony features in either a cloud or on-site deployment. VoiceONE Business Edition is a good fit for businesses with 5-150 users that don’t require sophisticated UC or contact center (CC) capabilities, though the solution is not restricted by size and can actually scale to handle as many as 500 users or more. Accent’s Business Edition joins the company’s earlier VoiceONE Cloud and On-Site offerings (based on Zultys call control) which have been rebranded under the umbrella VoiceONE Enterprise as these offer a more sophisticated suite of features for a higher monthly fee.

NEC SL2100 Smart Communications System
Last June, NEC announced the SL2100 Smart Communications System for small businesses in North America (up to 128 extensions). The new on-premises system is designed with built-in features over and above those of NEC’s earlier SL1100. These include mobile extension, audio and video conferencing, document sharing, presence and instant messaging, ACD and contact center and hotel/motel services. The built-in technology reduces the hardware required (and lessens licensing and maintenance), resulting in a cost-effective system that delivers many of the features required by SMBs today.

CenturyLink Business VoIP
In August, CenturyLink unveiled the Business VoIP cloud service for small businesses (1-10 employees) seeking a plug-and-play, pre-configured, as-a-service solution for their business communications. The service, based on BroadSoft technology and managed by CenturyLink, comes in two flat-rate packages: (1) Premium with popular telephony features and voicemail ($20 per user per month) and (2) Premium with Unified Communications that that adds mobile device voice integration, instant messaging and file sharing capabilities ($25 per user per month). Customers can purchase Polycom VVX telephones through CenturyLink or utilize already owned, compatible Polycom devices. Cisco’s Analog Telephone Adapter (ATA) can also be paired to incorporate existing analog telephones.

Digium Switchvox E-Series
Digium introduced four new SMB-focused Switchvox UC appliances (the E-Series) in August that promise better performance and affordability versus Digium’s earlier models. The compact E510 for small businesses (up to 150 phones and 50 concurrent calls) starts at $695 (suggested retail pricing); the E520 (300 phones and 100 concurrent calls) starts at $1,595. The higher capacity appliances E530 ($2,995) and E540 ($5,995) each support up to 600 phones and 200 concurrent calls and are powered by Dell EMC hardware; the E540 appliance has a mirrored RAID array of solid state drives and dual power supplies for redundancy requirements.

Panasonic Canada Hosted PBX
Panasonic Canada announced a new cloud-based telephony service offering in August for small and mid-sized businesses and enterprises (SMBs and SMEs) in the Canadian market. The new Panasonic Hosted PBX is a fully cloud-based solution that uses third party softswitch technology in conjunction with Panasonic’s SIP-based desktop and wireless phones. This includes a cost-effective Small Business Bundle (SBB) for very small businesses with fewer than eight extension users and a Small Medium Enterprise Business Plan (SME) for multi-site organizations and/or those that need more scale or that have more sophisticated communications requirements.

8×8 Virtual Office X
In October, 8×8 released three new 8×8 Virtual Office “X” Editions (X2, X5 and X8) that come with popular enterprise telephony and UC functions, but also more advanced capabilities not typically standard in competing UCaaS offers. The X Editions have a price-value advantage (among other advantages) over and above the earlier 8×8 Classic Editions, particularly the new X8 bundle that combines contact center functionality (drawn from the 8×8 ContactNow solution) with unified telephony/collaboration features. Though 8×8 continues to report a rise in the number of mid-market and enterprise customers (now 58% of the company’s total revenue), it is initially marketing the X editions to new SMB customers in the U.S. and UK. Over time, however, all 8×8 customers, including enterprise customers, will migrate to the X Editions.

Dialpad Free
Just this December, Dialpad introduced a free cloud phone service, called Dialpad Free, aimed at very small offices with five or fewer employees. The free service provides one business number and five extensions, along with a good subset of company’s business phone features. This includes some more advanced capabilities such as audio conferencing via Dialpad’s UberConference service (free accounts for all five users), video calling between Dialpad users and LinkedIn and Google G Suite integration. There are a few limitations in terms of outbound minutes per month and inbound/outbound SMS messaging, but overall, this looks to be a very intriguing offer for a small organization or home office, particularly since there are “no strings attached” and no bill (this is not just a free trial). Dialpad Free is initially being offered and tested in the San Francisco Bay Area, and will extend to other cities over time.

Hats off to those vendors and providers – those noted above and many others – stepping up to understand the challenges and requirements that smaller businesses and home offices face. Stay tuned as we continue to highlight new solutions for this key market segment, at times overlooked by analysts and other industry publications, but which are of high interest to a massive sector of the global economy.

Sandra Gustavsen