Infrastructure // Unified Communications
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10/17/2011
11:38 AM
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Plantronics Extends UC Headsets To Mac, iPhone

Apple users get improved unified communications features with Spokes for Mac and Instant Meeting for the iPhone.

Plantronics has been making audio technology for 50 years, but today our communications move from PC to mobile, from voice to instant messaging, and back again, and it's not so simple anymore. Plantronics ships a variety of products that help intelligently manage these communications: elegant headset devices teamed with the company's inventive software. Now Plantronics is extending some of its functionality to the Mac and to iOS, with Spokes for Mac and Instant Meeting for the iPhone.

Earlier this year, Plantronics raised its game in the world of unified communications (UC). The Voyager PRO UC headset seemed like a simple upgrade to the typical Bluetooth headset, but it was much more. It connected to a PC using a special USB device that supported wideband audio and detected sensors in Plantronics headsets (it knew when it was on or off your ear). It also worked together with Microsoft Office Communicator (and Lync), Skype, and Outlook.

You can make and receive calls in those systems from the headset. It detects presence: If you're on a call (even a mobile call), the software automatically makes you "busy" on Skype or Office Communications Server, for example. It reads the subject line of messages to you while you are on a call, based on predefined rules (a feature called "whisper"), or entire instant messages. You can control things like call volume, mute, answer, and hangup -- all directly from the headset. (Sidenote: The "whisper" feature, which was quite nifty, but a little strange, never made it out of beta and is now gone from the product.)

I had a few odd problems with many of these features in my testing back in January, but in general it worked pretty well, and more important, it was just the right thing for Plantronics to be doing--the UC market, and the enterprise in particular, are great hunting grounds for products like these.

[Apple sold 4 million iPhones in its first three days on the market. How did Apple do it?.]

One of the biggest problems I had, however, was simply that it doesn't work with a Mac. Now Spokes for Mac lets you use Plantronics headsets (this includes Voyager PRO UC, Savi office series, and the company's Blackwire devices) with Skype on the Mac--this includes controlling call volume, muting a call, and answering a call. A Plantronics spokesperson said that doing the same with Microsoft Communicator isn't yet possible because Microsoft hasn't provided the hooks to do so; you can still listen and talk using Communicator and a Plantronics headset, but you can't exert any of the controls. Well, it's a start.

To use Spokes, just like on the PC, a headset needs to talk to a Bluetooth USB adapter, or to a special DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) adapter (this is a wireless voice standard, used on many cordless phones; it avoids some of the problems with office or household frequency interference), which increases call quality and extends your range to 300 feet.

I tested Spokes for Mac using the DECT adapter and the Savi 440 headset (the headset must also support DECT). It worked like a champ for both Skype and Microsoft Communicator (I could only listen and talk on the latter), as well as streaming music.

Plantronics says that the Mac software isn't as robust as the PC software yet. Spokes for PC lets you customize settings on softphones (Cisco, Shoretel, and Avaya, along with Skype and Lync). For the Mac, it only offers answer, end, mute and volume control in Skype.

Spokes for Mac supports Skype v5.1 or higher, Apple Mac OSX v10.6.8 Snow Leopard, and v10.7 Lion.

Plantronics also began shipping the Voyager PRO HD. It is the consumer version of the Voyager PRO UC, with all of the sensors, so it knows when it's on your ear and answers calls automatically--it switches between handset and headset based on whether or not the headset is on your ear. It will stream music from your phone to the headset, and incoming calls will pause the streaming.

But it is not UC--it doesn't work with your unified communications systems like the Voyager Pro UC does. This is a consumer-oriented headset, sold in retail stores, and is an upgrade to the original Voyager PRO and PRO + headsets. However, you can buy a separate USB adapter, and if you're using the Spokes for PC software the headset can interact with Skype.

Voyager Pro comes with Plantronics' Vocalyst application for voice-based status updates to Facebook and Twitter; it also lets you check the weather, send yourself voice memos, and listen to and send e-mails.

InstantMeeting has also pondered the life of a corporate end user by making it very easy to join conference calls--previously Instant Meeting ran on BlackBerry and Android phones, but now there's an iPhone app.

Instant Meeting lets you connect to conference calls scheduled in your calendar, all with the push of a button. The software pops up a notification (you set the parameters for when you get these), and you can actually join the call directly from the notification, or directly from within the app. It even prompts you do re-dial a call if you've been disconnected (it seems a shame that this actually has to be a feature).

All of the smartphone apps get some enhancements with the newest version of Instant Meeting: for example, support for conference calls using WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Arkadin; remembering country preference in case you need to use international dial numbers; and the ability to notify attendees when you're running late. This last feature does not work on the iPhone.

Instant Meeting works with the native calendar app on each device, so if that calendar is synced with Microsoft Outlook calendar, for instance, those meetings will populate Instant Meeting. Same with Google Calendar. This app does not require any Plantronics gear.

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