Innovation in the Telephony Space

By: Alon Cohen

NEW Phone.Com online forum lets customers and office managers collaborate, ask questions about product features and share ideas.

PHONE.COM LABS is home to new technologies and “ideas-in-progress” developed by Phone.Com programmers and engineers. Brian Scott, our COO explains how “Phone.Com Labs” works to form a link from traditional product development cycles to a more user-centric innovation.

What does Phone.Com Labs do?

Phone.Com Labs was launched as a forum for sharing new technologies, concepts and ideas with potential users and customers. Our purpose is to offer previews so our developers, engineers and users can have a discussion about technology and ideas. At the early stages of the development we have the opportunity to explore and modify significant aspects of a product, such as the ways the user interacts with it. By the time an application is in its “beta” stage, those fundamentals are typically more rigid.

Our entire Virtual Office project is one great example of such interaction. Virtual Office is a virtual PBX that small businesses can use without installing any software or buying any hardware. After we posted it, users told us they liked the Web-based tool. But they asked, “What happens if I need to take my voicemails on a plane or Im disconnected?” We modified the technology to allow users to receive their voice mail not only via the phone, but as e-mail attachments and listen to them off-line. In much the same way we recently added a Text Voicemail feature that enables users to receive their voicemail transcribed as text directly to their e-mail so they can instantly use the phone number in the message and call back, or quickly answer via an e-mail.

Another customer suggested we make it easier to upload a Phone.Com control panel to iPhones, which lets users use the control panel without installing any software. The Phone.Com Labs team is now adapting the application to support the iPhone in creative ways.

Is Phone.Com Labs different from our R&D function?

While most R&D focuses on the technology, we take a multi-disciplinary approach to development, bringing design, technology and business concepts into consideration. In addition to online feedback and blogs about the technology previews, we interview customers and use ethnographic research methods. Recently, we completed a study with students to gain insight into the nature of messaging from the teenagers’ point of view.

Whats our vision for the future of virtual telephony services?

Without a doubt, innovation depends on a user-centered approach not technology-centered approach. The first approach takes into account feedback from many perspectives before an application is built, while the second approach requires users to adapt to the finished softwares function.

Phone.Com Labs takes a user-centered approach to development, so our exploration is not limited to potential enhancements to Phone.Com software. We are looking broadly at new ways of interacting with data, making it simpler to use without limiting users.

Take the complex problem of configuring a standard hardware PBX. We look at software, hardware and new interfaces such as simple web pages and PDAs. At our most recent user conference, we previewed a web page that we made into a virtual viewer. Users were able to play with it and see different aspects of a Virtual PBX.

As always, we welcome comments and suggestions from each and every one of you. Write on our forum or send us emails to support@phone.com or just comment to this blog post.