VoIP: When Talking to Computers Can Make Sense

Copyright: David Lawson - published in Property Week Sept 2005

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Everyone talks to computers, if only in four-letter expletives. When the machine starts answering, it’s usually a sign to call in the men with white coats. Yet millions happily chat away daily without the slightest fear they could be spending the weekend in the funny farm.

   In fact, it is now so popular that headlines exploded last month about a new dotcom boom as EBay offered more than £2bn for a tiny London-based firm called Skype which provides free software that enables phone calls over a computer. Other giants like Google and Microsoft are also spending huge amounts jumping onto a bandwagon that could transform the way businesses operate. And property is likely to play a key role.

  The technology behind this race is generally abbreviated to the acronym VoIP, which stands for Voice over Internet Protocol. Calls take place between what appear to be normal phones but are sent, as the name implies, via the same system as a computer uses the Internet. It has been around for more than a decade but was very unreliable when everyone used standard dial-up connections. Now that digital broadband is almost universal, its day has come. According to Insight Research, the global market for VoIP will reach $82 billion this year and $196.5 billion by 2007

    To many, the selling point is free phone calls: 70% of users polled by research group Ovum put cost saving at the top of their list. But operators such as BT have already slashed charges to the bone and the key benefits – particularly for businesses – are greater control and flexibility plus a host of sophisticated services.   Forward-thinking firms such as Savills have already installed internal systems linking desks and even international offices via VoIP [see panel]. This is often the first step to outside calls   

  The other aspect which has yet to be fully recognized comes from linking free calls with web pages and search engines, which is where property comes into focus. The internet has already transformed how buildings are bought and sold. Agents almost automatically list everything online and even include search facilities based on location and price. But very few expect to deal this way. The average punter will track down a bunch of possibles and then pick up the phone. Imagine a button next to each property entry which would phone up a real person at a mouse click to start the haggling. It may not seem a huge step in technology, but that kind of instant added service could make or break a deal.

  Google certainly thinks along those lines. Search engines were around long before improving the technology made a couple of US college students into billionaires. The company now wants to use its expertise wherever searching is critical – and where better than in the property market?   It is set to muscle into property finding and would have snapped up Skype if fellow behemoth Ebay had not jumped first. Instead, it is developing a voice system linked to instant messaging, an equally promising system for immediate discussion about properties. So is Microsoft, which has quietly bought a small US company similar to Skype. Time Warner/AOL is racing for the same market.  Wireless VoIP is the next big step, linking mobiles and handheld computers. Every big telecoms operator has also begun planning for the day when the internet takes over all telephones and voice calls are free. 

   What is VoIP?



When the London office phone system packed up for several hours it was the last straw for Savills. Every minute the clock ticked waiting for new parts was a huge drain on what are the firm’s biggest profit centres.  But as anyone who gets an engaged tone from a supplier knows, the impact on clients could have been even more costly. Advisers live or die on their reputation for swift, efficient service. With most business done by phone, they assume any delays must be down to bad manners, incompetence or a combination of both.

   Savills took the bull by the horns and scrapped the lot. In its place came a state-of-the-art system which now connects in the same way as the firm’s computers. The Avaya network installed by Azurri Communications is a microcosm of the kind of worldwide calling forecast to take over conventional phone networks within the next few years.  Calls come in normally but are directed by VoIP to individual staff. Savings are part of the deal, as seamless connections stretch out beyond London to all Savills offices. But this was not a major reason for the switch.

 Key factors were restoring customer - and staff – faith that everyone was available, plus a slew of extra benefits to enhance business operations. People don’t care how their phones work, says technical operations director Steve Brooks. They just want them to work. ‘Anything else is a bonus.’  And that bonus comes from the way the VoIP ‘virtual’ office works. Calls can be directed to any receiver, so staff can move around an office – or between offices - and still be accessible.

 This is not just for temporary flits to the copying room: firms like Savills are constantly in ‘churn’ nowadays as teams form and break up. Avoiding the hassle of changing phone connections for each desk saves a lot of time, says Brooks.Just as importantly, redirections can be to other offices or even homes. Small businesses with just a few key staff often on the move are finding this useful, as are larger ones making increasing use of consultants and home workers.