My apologies for the radio silence, but I was out on vacation (again), and this time I (mostly) stayed away from the ThinkPad. And I must say, I came back feeling a heck of a lot more refreshed and re-energized than those times when I've kept an electronic leash back to the office while out on vacation. Let that be a lesson: Whenever possible, actually allow your vacation to be one. The folks back at the office will live without you for a week or two, and you'll feel overly valued when you get back home as you try and answer those thousands of emails and voicemails. Oh, and make sure you accidentally leave your Blackberry sitting in a drawer somewhere.
Of course, no sooner had I arrived back here in Austin at the end of holiday than I got a phone call Sunday night from a colleague about some of our Web servers in Toronto being down for maintenance. I found myself needing to call another colleague in Sydney, Australia, to inform her of the situation, but didn't want to make a long distance call on my home phone, so I elected to make the call via Skype. My colleague wasn't at her desk, but I left her a voicemail approximately 100 seconds long. I later checked the Skype web site and discovered the call cost me the princely sum of $.03 Euros (almost 4 U.S. cents). I imagine that same call could have easily cost me a couple of bucks using a traditional carrier.
I would have used my Vonage line, but free calls are limited to the U.S. and Canada under my current plan. If you haven't checked VOIP out yet, it's probably a good time to take it out for a test drive. Because I have increasingly worked out of my home office -- something that more and more IBMers are doing -- switching to VOIP made a lot of sense for me. However, I'll be the first to admit I was hesitant due to the quality issues. I need my phone to work all the time, and with consistently good quality of service.
A month in, I can say I have had very few quality problems -- some line noises once in a while -- but the bonus features that come along with the computer-integrated telephony that VOIP enables make it more than worth the switch (and also, I can always use my cell phone as a backup!). For example, whenever I receive calls at my home office number, I have the option of having that same call ringing concurrently on my cell phone so that I know someone called. I can also now have all voicemails sent to my personal email address, something particularly useful when travelling. I just click on the email and a .WAV file pops open the Windows Media Player to play the voicemail. If I wish, I can save and store the voicemails, or if appropriate, forward them on to colleagues. Vonage also comes with many of the standard features you would get with a standard Baby Bell phone subscription such as calling forwarding, three-way calling, etc.
My hunch is that it will be this kind of computer and telephony integration that is going to push VOIP past the tipping point. Our software business has made some interesting announcements with Avaya on this topic recently. To sum it up, our partnership with Avaya will enable "click-to-call" and integrated audio capabilities with Lotus Sametime (later this year) and Lotus Notes (early next year). Essentially, this means that using our Sametime technology, users will be able to select multiple user names and "click-to-conference", making on-the-fly workgroup calls much easier to facilitate. We'll also be integrating audio conferencing provided by the Avaya Meeting Exchange tool with our Web conferencing capability, providing Web conference participants a visual indication of who is speaking, the ability to dial out to new participants, mute lines, etc.
In short, we're trying to make it a LOT easier to do these pedestrian but very necessary chores that make distributed workgroups work. That way, your people (and us IBMers!) spend less time trying to do the mundane tasks of synching up for virtual meetings, and more time focusing on the value they're trying to bring to your core business.