VoIP too tough to use: Expert

A usability expert has run into opposition from domestic Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers over his claim VoIP services are not easy enough to use. Asia-Pacific director of Usability by Design, Gary Bunker, claims Australian residential VoIP service providers suffer consistent usability issues.

A usability expert has run into opposition from domestic Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers over his claim VoIP services are not easy enough to use.

Asia-Pacific director of Usability by Design, Gary Bunker, claims Australian residential VoIP service providers suffer consistent usability issues. These include poor support in showing users how to make calls to the Public Switched Telephony Network (PSTN) or competing VoIP providers, limited access to cost-comparison data, and the fact would-be VoIP users need strong technical skills.

"There is a tendency among service providers," said Bunker, whose company bills itself as a usability research and consulting firm, "to jump into a purely technical sell without adequate explanation of what VoIP is and how end users can benefit, other than generic 'low rates' or 'cheap calls' statements. From a simple usability perspective, if people don't know what you're selling or why they should use it, they won't buy it," he continued.

Bunker said his research had focussed on software-based VoIP products, because most people would first trial VoIP services that had the lowest financial risk. Software-based products, he said, could be trialled for free and and calls made to the PSTN for a small extra fee.

Usability by Design tested offerings fromSkype, DingoTel, GloPhone, PC-Telephone, Net2Phone and Engin. The latter is the only hardware player.

However, several local VoIP providers rejected Bunker's view.

Netcomm is one company which recently launched a VoIP product in conjunction with service provider Laurel Stream. Managing director David Stewart told ZDNet Australia&nbsp Usability by Design "may have had some limited experience in the past, but they obviously haven't seen the latest products and looked at their usability."

"Our ATA100 product has to be the simplest thing since sliced bread," said Stewart. "Provided you've got a broadband connection, it's a matter of plug your phone in, and you can dial a number. Most people don't even try and read the manual--it's an intuitive kind of thing."

"I wouldn't suggest that a 60-70 year old grandmother is going to get it up and running straight away, but I would call anyone who already has broadband would have absolutely no trouble at all getting it to work," he said.

Ilkka Tales, chief executive officer of competing VoIP provider Engin agreed with Stewart. He said his company's Voice Box product -- aimed at at consumer and cost-conscious small business -- was easy to use. "There are certainly customers out there who are taking it and using it on a day-to-day basis without any installation issues."

Stewart claimed VoIP products could provide better functionality in some areas than traditional phone services. He cited the fact that with Laurel Stream's product, consumers could log in to the provider's Web site and watch the cost of calls in real time.

He brushed aside questions of interoperability difficulties between competing VoIP products. At a Networld Interop conference in Las Vegas that Stewart recently attended, he said, "26-30 different [VoIP] companies all had products connected and interoperating " on the conference network infrastructure.

The purpose of the demonstration, he said, was to demonstrate the strengths of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard, which is used in both Engin and Netcomm's products and fast becoming the defacto VoIP standard.