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Switch.co: A phone system built for Google Apps

Craig Walker connects Switch.co to Google Apps to modernize the phone call. Andy Wolber explains.

Switch-co

Switch.co brings Voice over IP (VoIP) to organizations that use Google Apps. It replaces your old phone hardware with new software built on the Google Cloud Platform.

"Switch makes sense for anyone who realizes their business phone system that serves a desk is broken," says Craig Walker.

Switch.co is Walker's latest attempt to modernize the phone call. Previously, Walker served as CEO of VoIP companies purchased by internet giants: Dialpad Communications, purchased by Yahoo in 2005, and GrandCentral, bought by Google in 2007.

With GrandCentral, Walker made phone calls better for individuals. The service included multi-ring, which rang incoming calls on multiple phones at once; customized "away messages" for different callers; and browser-based access to call records and voice messages. Today, the service operates as Google Voice and is being integrated into Hangouts.

With Switch.co, Walker seeks to make phone calls better for organizations using Google Apps.

"We're able to give you great design and great features at a low, low cost," says Walker. "We did a good job of that with GrandCentral and Google Voice. ...Enterprise is the next big thing."

Ease of use starts with the system's "one-minute" setup, which is best done by a Google Apps administrator. This allows Switch.co to import the Google Apps user directory into Switch.co. The service provides "a phone number for the business," and "a phone number for each employee," says Walker. Each person's newly assigned Switch.co number can then be added to their contact record. After that, people can customize various settings.

The focus on usability continues with calls. "To call someone, type their name," says Walker. To transfer a call, select transfer, then start to type the name of your colleague. There are no obscure five-digit employee extensions here: "Extensions are a concept of the past," says Walker. The system handles SMS messaging, too.

The benefit of Google Apps integration shows when a call connects. "We use [information] from Google Apps to show the last three emails, documents, and calendar appointments shared with a person," Walker says.

Switch.co works with a Chrome app on a computer (with a headset, please!) or with an Android or iOS phone. For calls over a computer, you'll need a solid internet connection. Walker thinks bandwidth shouldn't be an issue: "We're heavily optimizing bandwidth with WebRTC — using the Opus codec. We adjust on the fly." That's the same technology Google uses for Hangouts.

Walker's team built Switch.co on the Google Cloud Platform, which should allow the system to scale much more easily than PBX systems built decades ago. "[The market consists of] the legacy PBX companies and IP PBX companies who moved their services to the cloud," says Walker. "No one is doing a really cool useful product for the mobile worker."

As of October 2014, the service is in beta. With the beta, Walker says "We're trying to understand: 'Where do people hit rough edges? How do we guide them better?' We want to make everything as smooth as possible." Some key features — such as the ability to port in an existing number, support for toll-free numbers, and an iOS app — are in development and expected soon.

There's more work to be done, longer term, of course. Walker recognizes that deeper integration with Google Apps might be useful. "We've toyed with the idea of importing organizational units but haven't done it yet." In part, he says, because the organizational structure of "email distribution lists may not make sense for telephony." And, as of now, the company isn't prepared to sign a business agreement with US-based organizations that need to comply with HIPAA regulations, which means some healthcare organizations might look elsewhere.

When the features and apps are finished, Switch.com should be an attractive solution for any organization using Google Apps for Work. At a price of $15 (USD) per user, per month, an organization may be able to replace legacy phone equipment with Switch.co (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

Switch.co promises modern phone features to Google Apps for Work users at $15 (USD) per user, per month.

It's this switch from hardware to software that creates business value for customers. In financial terms, a switch to Switch.co replaces CapEx with OpEx. In English: phone systems that once required large, periodic capital expenditures plus ongoing operating expenses can be replaced by software at a fraction of the cost. Switch.co exemplifies the trend that investor Marc Andreessen neatly summed up as "software is eating the world." (Andreessen's firm, Andreessen Horowitz — along with Google Ventures — invested in Walker and his team.)

Walker says the goal is to help people be productive. "Consumers are going to use their own stuff," he says. "People do it because they're more productive that way. ...As a consumer, you have better tools in your house than you do when you show up to work."

If Walker and the team at Switch.co have anything to say about it, your work calls are about to get a whole lot better.

If you use Google Apps, has your organization switched to a VoIP system? Have you tried Switch.co? How does your phone system work with Google Apps?

About

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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