Switch.co Intends to Complete Google Apps
Integrating unified communications into the Google Apps experience sounds great, but UCaaS providers like Switch.co have their work cut out for them.
There's a new UCaaS provider in town, Switch.co, and it's targeting the neglected market of Google Apps users. It has a great concept, but finding a home for itself won't be easy.
Google Apps, which was estimated to have as high as 50% market share for cloud-based productivity suites in 2012, includes Hangouts for instant messaging and presence (IM/p). However, the service doesn't yet have an API to allow IM/p in Hangouts to be accessible to third-party applications. Switch.co, along with other third-party integrations, will need to overcome this and other barriers to creating an integrated Google Apps experience.
Most organizations choose between two mainstream approaches for their productivity and email needs -- the Microsoft Office suite (private or hosted) and Google Apps. While the Office/Exchange side is well covered for voice integrations, (EVERY major UC vendor integrates with Exchange), the Google Apps ecosystem is significantly smaller. However, it has been growing steadily.
A key component of any UC implementation is IM/p, the oldest of the "new" communication modes popularized over a decade ago with services from AOL and Yahoo. The three basic camps for IM/p today are Microsoft with Lync and/or Skype, Google Hangouts, or a third-party solution typically implemented across a single organization.
Switch.co At a GlanceTeam: Led by Craig Walker and Vincent Paquet, the twisted pair that previously launched DialPad (sold to Yahoo) and GrandCentral (sold to Google); team also includes veterans Dulce Ramirez and T.R. Missner and about 60 developers
Backed by: VC firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures
Claim to fame: Began life as Firespotter, creator of UberConference. For now, UberConference remains a standalone service but will eventually integrate with Switch.co
Prior to Hangouts, Google had supported Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, or XMPP, gateways into Chat, and an ecosystem had emerged. Mitel and Unify offered a native integration. Cisco and Avaya integrated through Esna. For pure cloud plays, some BroadSoft-powered providers offer integration with gUnify. Since Google eliminated the IM gateway capability, the space has become less active -- and Switch.co is probably the only purpose-built UCaaS solution for Google Apps.
The impending Switch.co UCaaS for Google Apps offering is new, but Switch.co as a company (formally Switch Communications, Inc.) isn't. It's actually a pivot for Firespotter, the team responsible for UberConference. Founders have said they see such a strong opportunity in UCaaS that they're changing the company name (for more information, see Switch.co At a Glance, at right).
How it works
For outbound calls, the Switch.co application accesses a user's contacts in Google Apps as well as the corporate master directory. For inbound calls, incoming callerID links to the contact's name. By matching the callerID to the contact in Apps, various APIs allow Switch.co to display the last three emails, appointments, and recent documents. In a briefing, Switch.co developers told me they also intend to show social information such as recent tweets or LinkedIn information. However, this won't be easy because Google Contacts doesn't have specific fields for social media.
Switch.co is a lot like GrandCentral (which became Google Voice) with dial tone. GrandCentral didn't offer phone service, but rather enhanced line service with simultaneous ring, unified messaging, and SMS. Switch.co has many of the same features plus adds PSTN capabilities with a softphone, positioning the service as a business communications alternative.
The Switch.co app runs in Chrome, and leverages some of the browser's WebRTC-related capabilities. A nice benefit of this approach is that a single installation deploys to all of a user's Chrome devices, including Chromebooks. Switch.co would be one of only a few softphones for the $300 Chromebook; others include the LiveOps agent software, the mPortal ChromePhone, and gUnify's ChromeOS SIP phone.
Switch.co vs. Google Voice
A point of potential confusion is the co-existence of Switch.co with Google's native Chat and Voice services. Users will have more than one way to chat, and, if enabled, the click-to-dial icons in Contacts will utilize Google Voice. These services overlap, but Google never intended Google Voice to be a phone system replacement and has effectively abandoned the service from a development perspective.
Switch.co has many similarities to Google Voice. Its mobile client, for example, uses cellular voice not Wi-Fi or 3G/4G/LTE. Both of the services are architected to dial a relay number, which then substitutes the outbound callerID. Recipients only see one public-facing number. Users can set their outbound dialing preference (Switch.co or native cell service) per contact and number.
Unfortunately, Switch.com did not replicate the Google Voice voicemail service. The Switch.co voicemail is fairly basic without transcription. A link to the recording, not the message itself, is sent via email.
The service includes a company lead number with a basic auto attendant and personal lines for each Google Apps user. Switch.co said it's expecting to price the service at about $15/user/month, including US and Canadian long-distance calling and texting. The service will be generally available "soon," and should meet the needs of many small businesses.
Larger businesses, however, may find Switch.co too limiting. Organizations that want hard phones will need to obtain or keep them separate, and integrate with simultaneous ring. Another limitation is Switch.co only intends to offer over-the-top connectivity. This works well for smaller firms, but larger organizations tend to favor private MPLS connections to their hosted providers.
Switch.co shared an aggressive development roadmap. Top of the list is porting of phone numbers, administrative controls of features, and tighter integration to the company's other product, UberConference (I would have expected this to be the starting point).
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