Updated March 12, 2015 10:38 p.m. ET
Desktop phones are disappearing from the Weather Channel. Instead, employees use their computers to dial voice calls. They can see recent documents or emails exchanged with the person on the other end of the line. If they need to leave their desk, they can transfer a conversation mid-call to a smartphone.
Online software from startup Switch Communications Inc. rings conference participants automatically at the appointed time, making 800 numbers and PINs unnecessary, said Bryson Koehler, chief information and technology officer of Atlanta-based Weather Co., the cable channel’s parent.
The office phone call has been losing ground since email burst into the workplace, and many people now use their smartphone for almost everything except talking. But voice communications are making a comeback as companies vying for a piece of the $1.6 trillion office-telephony market reinvent the phone call.
New voice technologies let companies replace on-site hardware with Web-based services sold by subscription and kept up-to-date by the vendor, rather than their own technicians. The new systems integrate text and voice communications and route calls to whatever devices workers choose. The emerging models challenge longtime communications-technology providers such as AT&T Inc.,Cisco Systems Inc. and Alcatel-Lucent SA.
While it’s unlikely voice communications will regain their previous influence in getting work done, some experts say digital communications have exposed the phone call’s distinct advantages. “How many times have you been on a giant email thread that’s not making any progress?” said Craig Walker, a founder of Switch and a former executive of Google Inc.’s Google Voice, which lets users link multiple phones to a single phone number. “You’ve distilled all the waste out of the phone conversation, and what’s left are these really important times when you need to talk to someone in real time, and get some emotion and back-and-forth.”
The idea behind ventures like Switch is to make voice communications more Web-like, allowing employees to work on any device, pinpoint a caller’s location or provide searchable archives of conversations.
Technology Assessment & Transfer Inc. uses Talko Inc.’s mobile app to send voice memos about its 3-D printing projects. Walter Zimbeck, general manager at Maryland-based Technology Assessment, said the company isn’t concerned about potential legal implications of recorded calls.
Talko users can permanently delete recordings or texts, a company spokeswoman said.
The new services also offer fresh opportunities to extend business communications beyond the office. Companies like Twilio Inc. and Nexmo Inc. make it possible for businesses to connect with customers in novel ways at what analysts say is roughly one-third the cost of a typical business call.
Behind Uber Technologies Inc.’s on-demand cab service, Twilio powers automated text messages that let customers know a driver is waiting; if needed, Twilio supplies one-use-only phone numbers so drivers can tell customers where to find them.
Updating the phone call isn’t a new idea. Companies like Cisco and Microsoft Corp. have long sold so-called unified communications products that give workers access to phone systems via computers and combine calls, texts and voice-mail transcripts.
Such products attract lots of revenue, but rely on older technologies that critics say makes them costly and difficult to use. Microsoft says that the products have saved businesses billions of dollars in hardware spending.
But the old guard isn’t sitting still. Microsoft is integrating Internet-calling service Skype with Lync, a workplace telecom offering, allowing business users to connect easily and cheaply with anyone who has a Skype account. Cisco has thousands of Web-software experts working on telecom products.
Telecom carriers AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. say emerging voice technologies are a business opportunity, not a threat. AT&T lets smaller businesses pay a single monthly bill for Web-based calling, wireless service and Microsoft Office software. Verizon offers Web-based voice calls and other tech systems through speedy, secure Verizon Internet networks. “This whole cycle of disruptive technologies is something we’re comfortable with,” said Shawn Hakl, head of Verizon’s networking platforms and managed products.
For the foreseeable future, spending on the incumbents’ services is likely to dwarf outlays for newer technologies. Sales of what research firm IDC calls “cloud communications platforms” are roughly doubling each year, but they are expected to hit just $7.5 billion by 2018. Companies spend about $1.6 trillion a year on telecom services, according to researcher Gartner Inc.
Even so, analysts say the older competitors can’t compete with younger rivals on functionality and cost. Conventional voice telephony for businesses costs roughly $25 to $28 a month per person, according to Phil Edholm, president of PKE Consulting, which specializes in communications. Those figures don’t include teleconferencing or video calls, which typically aren’t provided to everyone. On-site technicians add to the cost.
Web-based services can cost $15 to $25 a month per person and typically include long-distance calling, teleconferencing and video calls, and don’t require company technicians, Mr. Edholm said.
“Enterprises are slowing their spend on that proprietary infrastructure and using these much cheaper and better-functionality solutions,” said Mark Winther, an IDC analyst. He said phone carriers and the telecom-equipment vendors are most vulnerable.
Weather Co.’s Mr. Kohler said his company’s move from traditional telecom gear to software from Switch would cut costs by about 60%. But, he said, the change was less about cost than about maximizing productivity.
“My goal for the organization has been to shift the way we work and really empower our company and our people to work in a mobile, agile, collaborative, next-generation way,” he added.
Write to Shira Ovide at Shira.Ovide@wsj.com
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