Before VoIP Utopia, Reality

Not a day goes by wihtout some large enterprise telephony/software company promising a blissful marriage of communications and business applications. (Wednesday Cisco and IBM were painting a picture of a new IP-enabled future, while Microsoft dreamed of billions from the same.)

While they may think of it as utopia, it reminds us of Arena Football. What problem are the big companies really trying to solve, other than buffing up their revenue streams? While they wait to lead businesses to the promised land pledging to tie together communications like voice, IM and email, and to integrate them with business applications (bet you just can’t wait to dial someone from Excel), innovative startups are already offering a cornucopia of V(eb)oIP that are based on open standards (mostly) and more importantly are easy to use. (Well, almost easy to use.)

One of the more recent and powerful trends has been the early consumer adoption of cutting-edge technologies which then find a home in the enterprise. These new-fangled consumer focused VoIP applications could soon be headed that way.

At the recent ETel show in Burlingame, several startups showed interesting twists on the click-to-call idea: Single-phone number provider Grand Central showed a web widget that adds a “call me” number to any web page; U.K. startup Mexuar showed a Java softphone that could be embedded into a web page; and Austin, Texas-based Jaduka announced an API that will let developers connect web apps to the PSTN.

There was more, like the demo where the guys from Peerant built a web-based call-center app for Skype users in just a few minutes. You could even use Grand Central as a makeshift small-biz PBX — just map your company’s main number to 10 individual cell phones, and voila — you never miss a call, just like having an Avaya switchboard at little or no cost.

And why wait for productivity-app presence or fixed-mobile convergence if you already have a VoIP-enabled IM client? As Om wrote recently, the humble program once known as Instant Messaging looks like it’s spent a few rounds at the BALCO bar, with just about any client you pick (Skype, AIM, Yahoo, Gtalk) able or soon willing to add video, voice and other rich-media exchanges to the text-message base we all know, love, hate, but can’t live without.

Such modular voice-integration apps might be deployed quickly, in stages, and swapped in and out for better or other standards-based solutions as business needs change or scale. They could even be used internally, on company web pages, wikis or blogs.

That direction seems to make more sense than waiting for Cisco, Microsoft or Avaya to deliver some communications-applications nirvanasuite — something that probably won’t interoperate with the new communcations infrastructure that is already inside enterprises, growing daily.