Verizon debuts new iobi Enterprise communications tools

Users can receive phone calls, IMs and e-mail in one place

Verizon Communications Inc. has unveiled tools to allow enterprise users to get their phone calls, e-mails and instant messages through a single Web-based portal.

In an announcement yesterday, New York-based Verizon debuted its iobi Enterprise tools, which allow users to link voice and messaging services and to have real-time remote control of phone traffic, messaging alerts and other services.

Iobi Enterprise can be accessed through a PC client, Web browser or voice portal. Workers can retrieve voice mails via their PC, forward them using e-mail and organize them with their e-mail service. Mobile workers can link their voice services with their daily schedules, enabling voice features to follow them as they travel.

Off-site workers can also see online who's calling their office phone before it rings. The user can then take the call by forwarding it from their office phone to another phone, according to Verizon.

The new service is aimed at large business customers and educational institutions that use Centrex and public/private branch exchange phone services because it will leverage investments in existing hardware, without the need to move to voice over IP, said Brianna Gowing, a Verizon spokeswoman. "It has the same interfaces as our VoIP services if companies want to migrate later," she said. "It breathes more life into Centrex. It's like a common thread."

"What makes it unique is that no one has really addressed the needs of Centrex customers," said Ian Forrest, manager of iobi services for iobi Enterprise. Companies can deploy iobi Enterprise for as many users as needed, rather than across the whole company, he said.

Wu Zhou, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said iobi Enterprise has the potential to be important because it allows companies to use existing copper phone lines and infrastructure. "After all, most of the U.S. and the world are still on copper lines," she said.

The challenge will be to get corporate users to understand the benefits of iobi Enterprise beyond how "cool" it is to techies, she said. "The real value of iobi is you can control how you are accessed and contacted" by clients, co-workers and others. "That could be very powerful. It's more a matter of putting control in your hands."

Iobi Enterprise, which will cost between $7 to $8 per user per month, follows iobi offerings for home and small business users announced since August. The enterprise version took longer than expected to release because it needed more robustness and additional features, Forrest said.

The technology was first touted by Verizon in March 2003 on the heels of an announcement by Siemens AG for its similar IP-based networking OpenScape software (see story). OpenScape synchronizes voice communications, messaging and real-time collaboration tools on a mix of devices, including PCs, cell phones and pagers.

Rob Rich, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, said iobi and OpenScape have similar targets, but iobi allows companies to use their existing Centrex systems without buying new hardware now. Rich, who has used the iobi Home product for about a year, said the service is a "real productivity enhancer" -- especially for mobile workers such as sales and service people.

Neal Sturm, CIO of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., has been an early beta tester of iobi Enterprise for about a year and said he likes the flexibility it gives him. About 30 of his IT staff members have been using the product for the past 90 days in their own trial.

"I'm the kind of person, like most technology people, who really enjoys having the ability to be in contact with people and also to control that contact," Sturm said. He can place contacts he must speak with on an exception list that iobi uses to immediately put calls through, while also routing less important calls and messages to other mailboxes or into voice mail.

"I believe there's going to be a lot of applications that people will see once they use it," he said. "I see this as being very value-add for what I think is a small cost."

The iobi Enterprise service is available now from Virginia to Maine, where Verizon already provides Centrex voice services, and is expected to be rolled out later this year to additional Verizon markets in conjunction with other products and services, such as private branch exchanges.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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