Cloud in a Box

by Dave Michels

Panasonic wants to sell SMBs hosted voice – and intends to do so via retail outlets with its new “Panasonic Cloud Business Phone System.” Available now at Amazon, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Staples.

The vast majority of hosted voice services make little hay about the phone itself – usually positioning it as optional (use a softphone) and treating it as an afterthought. Most service providers I’ve come across offer the cheapest name-brand SIP phone they can find. The phone itself is usually downplayed, with the power being in the web portal. These phones can be tricky to configure for a novice, so it is generally best  to purchase the phone from the service provider preconfigured.

Panasonic evidently saw an opportunity. Most service providers don’t have a good answer for wireless phones, nor do they typically have retail distribution. Panasonic has been seeing its telephone key system business get smaller – and no doubt concluded the cloud has something to do with it. So They took their existing analog multi-handset solution and combined it with a hosting solution powered by Broadsoft technology to create a cloud in a box.

The base unit and one wireless phone runs about $300, and each additional wireless handset (up to eight) runs about $80. These are DECT wideband wireless phones – superior over wifi when it comes to quality, distance, and battery life. The hardware portion of the solution runs less than $800 for eight phones. That’s cheap!

These phones are to be paired with the Panasonic cloud which runs about $40/mo per line and can be expanded up to three lines and up to eight phone numbers. This notion of separating numbers from lines isn’t widespread in SMB hosted offerings.

All in all it is pretty clever and it will make a lot of sense for lots of users. But I’m not convinced that hosted voice – something inherently complex,  can be packaged so simply without disappointment. The website keeps it simple at: I see opportunity for frustration.

  • It really isn’t even clear that you need a high speed Internet connection and not analog phone lines. Nor is there any discussion about QoS and bandwidth contention issues. (Vonage doesn’t mention it either).
  • It isn’t clear that you need to dial 11 digits for local calls. This will create some remorse.
  • The phones advertise “one touch transfer.” That sounded neat, so I looked in the manual. Press Menu, highlight transfer with up and down buttons, then press Select. Enter the complete phone number (11 digits) then press Trans button. That’s a minimum of 14 buttons. I suspect internal transfers are easier, but they are not in the manual.
  • The site claims that one of the benefits of a cloud solution is that should the power go out, you won’t miss your calls. “Downed power lines do not mean a loss of business.” Panasonic is accidentally implying the phones will work without power. Presumably what they mean to imply is the voice mail system will continue to work – or maybe calls can be forwarded to cell phones. Certainly voice mail could equate to loss of business, and cell phone overflow can be tricky with small businesses and multiple shifts. If reliability is going to be a key marketing message, it should include a claim or assurance about the cloud’s reliability (SLA). But it doesn’t.
  • The site also says faxes are supported and can be viewed in email. But doesn’t say anything about outbound faxing. A customer that cancels their fax line may be in for a surprise.

These aren’t Panasonic problems per se, but they become their problem with they market the cloud in a box and expect Norman at Best Buy to clarify any concerns. I do expect to see a higher than average return rate on the product due to the light presales information.

Despite these concerns. I love the basic idea and wonder if these phones can be used with other SIP services (cloud or premise). Panasonic also upgraded its line of corded SIP phones. Someone really needs to simplify SIP phones, I spent time recently modifying my Polycom phone via the web interface only to discover that the parameter I really needed to change was only accessible via a downloaded configuration.

An $80 DECT wideband DECT phone! Benefits of consumerization.