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Web Startups Offer Telephony Relief To Small Businesses

Companies like Toktumi and Ribbit compare their role and impact on the industry to the historic shift from electronic typewriters to word processors in the 1970s.

As the business of enterprise phone systems collides increasingly with Web-based applications, small businesses are finding they have an explosion of options for in-office telephony, fixed-mobile convergence, collaboration tools, and the like, many of them provided by third-party application providers.

The telecom industry, said Peter Sisson, CEO of voice-based PC-and-phone integrator Toktumi, is in the same state as the word-processing industry was in the 1970s: shifting from electronic typewriters (or enhanced desk phones with small screens and the like) to word processors (PC-based telephony).

Now, several of those integration tools are available as add-on applications, without requiring a full rip-and-replace of a company's existing telephony infrastructure.

"We're not into the 'Get rid of what you got' business," said Crick Waters, senior VP of strategy and business development at Web-based telephony provider Ribbit. "We started out as a business life-improvement system."

That essentially means a software switch that allows companies, particularly small businesses, to combine their traditional telephony systems with Web-based networks and protocols. Ribbit also offers an open platform on which third-party developers can build communications applications.

The Ribbit application programming interface consists of four "pillars," explains Waters: call control and routing; a messaging layer for recording, transferring, and transcribing voice mail; directory services; and administration. "With those four things you can build just about anything," said Waters during a presentation at the Emerging Communications Conference at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley on Wednesday. "That is the platform."

At the Demo conference in Palm Desert, Calif., in January, Ribbit introduced its Amphibian service, a converged fixed-mobile application for individuals that transform any physical phone into a virtual device that can be used in Web environments as well. The company also has introduced a "Ribbit for Salesforce.com" application that integrates small-business telephony systems with the popular Web-based software for salespeople.

Also presenting at the eComm conference was Toktumi, which targets very small businesses (one to nine employees) with Web-based software that adds the power and functionality of large-enterprise telephony systems to small-company desk phones.

Businesses with fewer than 10 employees represent a huge and underserved market, said Sisson, with some 40 million employees in the United States.

"These companies have a host of problems with affordable telephony," he said on the eComm stage. "They've basically been ignored, because there's not enough business there to make it worthwhile for the large providers."

Offering an enterprise-class phone system via the PC, Toktumi has a basic free download version plus a $12.99 a month hosted service. "It's inexpensive, it's simple to set up and easy to use, and it's a powerful, low-brow way to get some of the features your friends at big companies have," explained Sisson.

For IT managers at small and medium-sized businesses, the words "simple," "inexpensive," and "easy" have seldom been heard in the same sentence with telephony. Now, thanks to the power of Web-based applications, that's changing.

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