Here Comes VoiceCon (Rant)

by Dave Michels

VoiceCon is coming-up in Orlando. It is a great event – probably the best venue for serious UC discussions, demos, and news. And this year’s conference will be even better since I’ve been invited into the program three (3) times!

My sessions are:
1) Co-Moderator for Role of Cloud in Enterprise Telecommunications. I think this will be very interesting as 2010 promises to be the year that voice meets cloud. I think the unsung here is Intel’s Nehalem processors. Real time voice systems just might be willing to settle down in a virtual home.

2) Panelist on How Many Phones Does Your Enterprise Need: The days of the enterprise buying a new shiny expensive phone for each employee seem to be coming to an end- the question is what does the employer provide instead. See my related post at NoJitter (Remember when IP Phones Were Cool?)

3) Locknote: I’m honored to be included in this wrap-up session that identifies and summarizes what the hell happened over the past few days. I’ve already put together all my thoughts, so hopefully no one announces anything new or interesting at the show.

I am looking forward to VoiceCon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few things to complain about.

The VoiceCon keynotes are among the highlights of the show. The invited presenters, from leading UC firms, generally provide a demonstration of recent breakthroughs in their intuitive products and/or services. The operative word is “intuitive”. Telephony usually isn’t described as intuitive -like spelling a word without Qs or Zs, no backspace key, and what the hell does a Flash key do anyway? Today, intuitive telephony is the new black and the vendors are pleased to show their progress. No problem here, until the actual demo starts. For some reason, I have yet to see a keynote executive ever do their own demo.

Steve Jobs, an amazing CEO in many regards, always does his own demos – and specifically highlights the elegance of the solution while doing so. One could argue that telephony is not a consumer product, but aimed at IT management. But this is only true from a sales perspective – every employee at a firm is expected to use the technology without training. Personally, I am sick of “I will try to transfer you, but if I drop you please call back.” Make it intuitive for real! Solutions need be so intuitive that even “Joe the Plumber” or a telecom executive can do use it without support staff.

Boothless Exhibitors
This is a new bothersome trend. The trade show concept is fairly simple – vendors exhibit and those interested in learning about the vendors or talking to the vendors can do so at the booth. A new trend is emerging where the vendors hide among the crowd instead of setting up shop. It isn’t just about economics either – last year at VoiceCon, a major sponsor and keynote presenter was boothless Microsoft. The company booked several demo and meeting rooms elsewhere in the hotel – presumably at a higher cost. There was a big sign that said where, but it was by appointment only. Of course, to get an appointment, you had to go there (and feel) uninvited.

I think meeting with the different vendors is a key part of the show experience, and this game of hide and seek is annoying. In January, I was at an industry show and met with Avaya, Siemens, Shoretel, and Mitel – none of which had a booth. Dave doesn’t get it, and Dave doesn’t like it. I am sure it is very expensive and times are tough, so make it a smaller booth with less people – don’t eliminate the booth.

Press Releases
There will be lots of announcements at VoiceCon – some significant. None of which I will understand. I don’t speak PR. Here is the opening of a major press release at last year’s VoiceCon:

CITY, State. ─ FIRM today announced the launch of a new era of business communications with PRODUCT NAME™, a breakthrough architecture that easily integrates communications across multi-vendor, multi-location and multi-modal businesses. PRODUCT NAME radically simplifies complex communications networks, reduces infrastructure costs and quickly delivers voice, video, messaging, presence, Web applications and more to employees anywhere. PRODUCT NAME will be available globally in MONTH 2009.The NEW ARCHITECTURE is anchored by the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)-based, open standards SECOND PRODUCT NAME, which centralizes communications control and application integration. THIRD NAME orchestrates a wide array of communications applications and systems by decoupling applications from the network. As a result, services can be deployed to users depending on what they need rather than by where they work or the capabilities of the system to which they are connected. THIRD NAME instantly reduces complexity and provides the foundation for broader unified communications strategies.

It goes on, but never actually explains what the product is or does. This is just one example. I don’t know why press releases just can’t say things simply. Whatever the release, I know it is from a leading company and the product or service will revolutionize the industry by saving money and improving productivity and unleashing a new era of capabilities. That part I get before I even read it.

If you want me to actually understand what the product or service is doing new, please include that info in the release as well. This is why, IMHO, blogging is working and traditional media isn’t – somewhere journalism and PR became a game and the end-reader wasn’t invited.

Out-of-Office Greetings
One of the powerful benefits of unified communications is the ability to work wherever you may be. During VoiceCon, I will be attempting to meet several people and email and voice mail are among the tools I will use to locate people. And I will get out-of-office autoresponders (that’s ok) that say they have limited access to messages (not ok).

What a bunch of hypocrites! If this is you, perhaps you are at the wrong show.

I understand shows are busy and detailed responses are not easy – but limited access to messages? UC experts have no excuse not to be reachable during the show or any business function. Cell strength is good there, and there is plenty of WiFi. If you are staying at the Gaylord Palms, they even provide a computer in most rooms. Personally, I only use out-of-office responders or greetings when I am on vacation – I have a smartphone, a laptop, and many other tools that keep me connected – just like most kids and housewives. Any telecom professional that hides behind these obsolete excuses while traveling just doesn’t get it.

Best of Show
Every VoiceCon there is a “Best of VoiceCon” award voted by attendees. Hats off to the uber-marketers at ShoreTel that realized few understood this. ShoreTel won three years in a row. No offense to ShoreTel, they deserved this as they really worked it, but it was earned not by product but by aggressive campaigning. Evidently the VoiceCon organizers either got complaints or caught-on and this year changed it up to a judged panel including VoiceCon co-chairs Fred and Eric plus:

  • Michael Finneran, President, dBrn Associates
  • Marty Parker, Principal, UniComm Consulting
  • Sorell Slaymaker, Communications Architect, Unified IT Systems
  • David Stein, Principal, PlanNet Consulting
  • Allan Sulkin, President, TEQConsult Group

I work with Marty and Michael on the team. I think this panel will add some heft to the award – and if ShoreTel wins four years in a row I will be truly impressed. For reasons I don’t understand, the deadline for submission already passed. Perhaps it should be Best of PreShow.

Vendor Diversity
Unified Communications represents a broad set of technologies and integration tools. But VoiceCon is still dominated by the voice equipment firms. I would like to see more representation from the likes of Skype, wireless carriers, cloud services, video players, virtualization firms, and the big one… Google. at VoiceCon. It is impressive how far and quickly Microsoft and IBM have impacted the voice space in just a few years. But I want more. Last year T-mobile had a booth, but they were just showing their latest phones – I want to hear from the carriers more about MPLS, 4G, and LTE. Obviously, you can’t make vendors come, and even the ones that do come seem booth averse. The UC space is ripe for explosion. Voice isn’t just the PBX anymore, and the vendors that intend to play in this space should play at this show.

Serenity Now!

Ok, now that is off my chest – time to focus on the positive (several idiots are telling me that I need to be more positive). I attend several shows every year, and VoiceCon does do a great job on many fronts. Here are a few that are important to me.

Wireless Networking
Such a basic technology, yet unobtainable (unobtainium?) at many major events. I’ve never had a problem at a VoiceCon show on this front.

Not a big Orlando fan (I prefer Vegas and SFO for conferences), but as Orlando events go, I like the Gaylord Palms. During these events, it is difficult to get out, but the Gaylord provides the illusion of different locales – the harbor, the everglades, the sidewalk cafes – all conveniently located within one building.

Name tags
This may seem silly, but it isn’t. Name tags are very important at events like these as so much networking takes place. Most conferences don’t think much about the name tags and buy whatever is on sale. VoiceCon actually goes to the trouble and expense of using name tags that don’t easily swivel/flip backwards. The solution is a tag that connects to the necklace in both upper corners instead of in the top center. Every name tag, at other conferences, I attempt to read is always flipped over. I tweeted this at the last VoiceCon and the staff member that was responsible for it actually sought me out to thank me for noticing. It is easy not to notice, but I’m continually reminded at other events.

Good A/V
Rear projection makes the most sense. Good audio, good microphones, excellent recording – its the whole package. Never had any complaints about the A/V – it works, I can hear, I can see – nice job. Hopefully IBM remembers to connect their demo server to the network this time during the keynote. I do wish they didn’t make so many sessions available on the web. My concern is so much of the value is the social networking, and the easier they make the content available remotely, the less reason to attend – which weakens the value of the show (more on this below).

So Come Then
Due to the very technologies they glorify, shows like these become more important. Our world is increasingly virtual – Twitter, Facebook, webinars, email – the need to collaborate face to face is decreasing. You can stay at home and read the press coverage and watch the keynotes if you like – but you will miss it. Our virtual world makes some events, those than blend professional and social, even more important.

I don’t like virtual trade shows – VoiceCon and others have tried it and I expect the “experiment” to end soon as a failure. Conferences are not just about the news and technology – they are about people. Honestly, there are not very many venues were you can meet so many of the people that shape unified communications. Years ago, there were many events – TCA, Interop, Comdex, SuperComm – but today there are only a few decent shows during the year and VoiceCon is ‘The Show’ for Enterprise telephony. Don’t miss it because it is the participation of the community that makes it great.