Divitas loaned me a Nokia E71 to try out with their mobile unified communications solution hosted by Sawtel. It’s a very nice phone – looks good, feels good in the hand. It’s also the best-sounding cell phone experience I have ever had, and that’s thanks to DiVitas. All cellular service providers use technology that sacrifices sound quality for increased carrying capacity. By squeezing down the bandwidth used by a call they can fit more calls into each cell, and get by with fewer cell towers, saving money. The standard codec around most of the world is GSM, and it’s the reason that cell calls can never sound as good as landline calls.
But DiVitas uses a Wi-Fi connection for your calls, and they have chosen to use the standard land-line codec, G.711. The effect is startling – a little disorienting even; we are so used to the horrible GSM codec that when a cell phone sounds as good as a land-line the subjective illusion is that it sounds much better.
This is one of the reasons that the type of voice over Wi-Fi solution offered by DiVitas is way better than the one offered by the telco industry, called UMA. UMA uses the GSM codec even over Wi-Fi connections.
But DiVitas didn’t stop with the sound quality. DiVitas has done an excellent job in several other technical areas. The fundamental technology of fixed mobile convergence is the ability to hand off a call in progress from the cellular network to the Wi-Fi network and vice versa.
This is very challenging, and it is an area where DiVitas claims to lead. So the first thing I did after turning on the phone was to make a call to check it out. I didn’t need to look at the on-screen indicator to know that the call was running over my office Wi-Fi network. The sound quality (did I mention this before?) was superb. So I walked out of range of the WLAN and sure enough the call handed over to the cellular network without dropping. There was a brief interlude of music and the call continued. Going back into the WLAN coverage area the handoff was completely seamless, perceptible only by the improvement in call quality as it moved from the cellular to the WLAN network.
Superior sound quality and seamless handover, while impressive to an engineer who knows what’s entailed, are not really sexy to regular users – it’s just a phone behaving like you would expect. DiVitas takes it to the next level by overcoming another technical challenge, delivering a polished, well thought-through, feature rich and well integrated user interface on the phone.
Actually, the DiVitas software client for the handset overcomes two challenges. The technical challenge of integration with the phone’s native software environment, and the design challenges of usability and usefulness. User interfaces are a matter of personal taste; the best are those that don’t get in the way of doing what you want. I disappointed the people at DiVitas by discarding their carefully written instructions and forging ahead by trial and error. Considering the potential consequences of this behavior I got away lightly. Everything worked the way I expected it to, and there were some nice touches, including Skype-like presence icons by the names in the directory.
While we’re on the topic of the directory, one thing that jumps out is the four digit phone numbers.
This is an indicator of yet another set of technical challenges that DiVitas has overcome to deliver their solution, namely integration with the corporate PBX, and presentation of the PBX features through the cell-phone user interface. DiVitas users will actually get a superior experience of the PBX through their cell phone compared to their desk phone. This is because the DiVitas software has a computer industry heritage rather than a telco heritage; it takes advantage of the nice big color screen with features like the presence icons and voice mail presented in an on-screen list like on the iPhone.
So the big news here is that a product has finally caught up with the hype around enterprise Mobile Unified Communications. All my criticisms (DiVitas got an earful) are nitpicking. For me the system worked as advertised, and that’s saying a lot.