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Consumer Usability Seen As Key To VoIP's Success

Convenience is seen as the key to consumer acceptance of voice-over-IP technology as rival industries seek to deliver new types of content over the emerging communications technology.
SAN FRANCISCO — Convenience is seen as the key to consumer acceptance of voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology as rival industries seek to deliver new types of content over the emerging communications technology. A panel of industry executives at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's show here this week agreed that the technology behind VoIP is meaningless unless companies make it possible for customers to use and enjoy it. The executives also maintained that providing products that customers were comfortable using was their chief goal, regardless of the protocol at work.

"VoIP has a lot of mystique, but it's just a protocol. It's just a standard," said Glenn Britt, chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable, which rolled out VoIP service in 2004.

"The customer does not need to know how VoIP works," added Len Lauer, president and chief operating officer of Sprint Corp. "They just want their phones to work." Lauer said Sprint is working with cable companies and others to study ways to bring the "convergence experience" to customers.

Lauer said Sprint maintains a usability lab where the company researches customers' ability to use products.

"Usability of products is a huge challenge for this industry," agreed James Robbins, president and CEO of Cox Communications.

While acknowledging that consumer usability is an important challenge, Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks, said the challenge is generational. "For the generation that grew up using cellphones and broadband, this technology is second nature," he said.

Britt agreed that the usability issue will become less important as generations of customers who grow up using newer technologies come of age. He noted that when cable television was first introduced, dramatically increasing the number of available channels, many consumers felt that it was a confusing, unnecessary service. "But things move along," he said.

Glaser said RealNetworks has adopted a policy of partnering with more traditional media companies as a way of expanding its customer base. "Working collaboratively with the cable industry is the way for us, and companies like us, to go," he said.

"The focus has got to be on the consumer," Britt added. "Whether we use VoIP or some other technology, the focus has got to be on the service that we offer."

VoIP telephony services are expected to grow from about 400,000 U.S. households by the end of 2004 to 12.1 million U.S. households by 2009, according to an October 2004 report by JupiterResearch.