It's fair to say that, over the years, the SMB sector maybe hasn't received the love and attention it has deserved from communications service providers (CSPs).
But there are signs that this is changing, so we created the Most Innovative SMB Service category for this year's Leading Lights awards to acknowledge that at least some CSPs are recognizing the unique needs of this market and are even developing services tailored to those needs. They are not just downsizing services originally designed for larger customers.
Greater competition in the SMB space also is driving this new interest in differentiating services and that is largely being driven by the cable services industry, which is well-represented in this year's line-up of finalists. (See Small Firms Love Cable.)
Not surprising, cloud technology is also having an impact. Given its ability to deliver features and functions that can replace on-premises equipment and that can be delivered on a per-user basis without requiring expensive IT staff, cloud services are considered ideal for the SMB space. Service providers are finding that to be true. In fact, all three of our finalists are cloud-based services -- yet very different in nature.
You can see the full Leading Lights finalist list here.
Our three finalists in the Most Innovative SMB Service category are:
Verizon Enterprise Solutions: Virtual Communications Express
This cloud-based service brings to small and mid-sized businesses the advanced voice features that allow them to be more productive without any investment in equipment or staff. Verizon Enterprise Solutions 's Virtual Communication Express delivers basic features that are similar to the key systems so common in SMBs, such as allowing an employee to answer a call from any phone, place the call on hold, and pick it up from another phone in the office. It also offers advanced services, such as integration with Google Apps to enable click-to-call service from email, calendar, and chat services; simultaneous ringing on a home, office or mobile phone line; visual voicemail messages delivered via email; and office-anywhere functionality that not only lets incoming calls be forwarded to another phone, but also allows outgoing calls to appear to originate at the business number.(See Verizon Offers Web Ordering for SMBs.)
In addition to enabling productivity and the ability to pay per user, Virtual Communications Express helps small businesses cope with disaster recovery, and eliminates the need for on-site hardware.
While there are a number of cloud voice solutions available for SMBs today, Verizon's VCE is innovative in its comprehensive approach and bundling of features with unlimited local and long-distance dialing.
Comcast Business: Upware
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) launched Upware in February 2013 as a cloud-based app store for small businesses that lets them quickly and easily access a range of IT services, including data backup, data security, and collaboration. Using a single sign-on, Upware customers can reach companies such as Carbonite Inc. , Mozy, Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Box. (See Comcast Gets Bizzy With Apps.)
Upware is aimed at businesses with 50 employees or less, and is believed to offer its users discounts on these services -- just as it is believed to generate additional revenues for Comcast.
Since announcing Upware, Comcast has added Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)'s Webex conferencing to the mix and is promising to continue to add applications such as customer relationship management and other features. This move beyond communications services into delivering IT functionality is a clear sign of what's to come in SMB services, and Comcast seems to have gotten there first. (See Comcast Adds Cisco WebEx to Upware.)
Cox Business: SMB payment service
Cox Communications Inc. is also offering more than telecom services: By partnering with Acculynk, Cox is able to offer its SMB customers access to Payleap, a cloud-based merchant and credit-card processing service.
Payleap offers something many small businesses need -- an all-in-one suite of payment-processing capabilities in a simple format, with affordable pricing. That enables small businesses to collect payments via a multitude of platforms -- online, mobile, or in-store.
Cox's decision to help its SMB customers with a business requirement that goes well beyond voice, data, and video is a prime example of innovation tied to understanding customer needs.
Our first list of SMB innovations comes from three industry giants, but are there things out there we haven't yet recognized? Let me know by weighing in on the message boards below.
The Leading Lights winners and latest Hall of Fame inductees will be revealed at the Leading Lights awards dinner, which will be held during the evening of Tuesday, October 1 at the dangerously hip The Out NYC Hotel in New York City. (For more details, see Leading Lights 2013.)
Assuming we all survive that experience, we'll gather the next morning at the Ethernet & SDN Expo, which takes place at the Javits Center, New York City, on October 2 and 3. (Details and the agenda are on our show site, Ethernet & SDN Expo.)
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading