UC (unified communications) has undoubtedly been the communications story of the past two years, but until recently, solutions that small businesses could afford were a rarity. Joining that now-growing group is Virtual Office Pro, from 8x8, Inc., whose hosted IP PBX service Virtual Office Enterprise VoIPplanet reviewedabout a year ago.
Virtual Office Pro, launched earlier this year, bundles IP-based fax, presence, instant messaging, online meetings with screen sharing, and call recording with existing Virtual Office PBX features such as automated attendant, voicemail, and find-me-follow-me call routing.
The new Pro edition can be used with an IP phone set or broadband phone adapter and regular phone (both of which 8x8 sells). However, it also works with the company's new integrated browser-based softphone and management utility, Virtual Office Online.
And unlike with some hosted PBX services, Virtual Office Pro subscribers can switch back and forth between using their PC or physical phone set to make and take calls.
Virtual Office Online saves companies the hassle of downloading and installing a softphone program on each computer. The browser-based application not only lets employees make and take calls on their PCs wherever they are, but also adjust settings, collect email, route calls and use the unified communications features, all from a single interface.
An Unlimited Extension Pro plan, which includes unlimited calling to Canada, the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, costs $49.99 a month, with a one-time activation fee of $39.99.
An Unlimited Extension plan with similar bundled calling but without the unified communications features included in the Pro option costs $29.99 a month.
For small businesses looking for a way to painlessly and economically add a unified communications capability, if only to try it out, Virtual Office Pro is an excellent deal.
But in our testing, call quality using Virtual Office Online -- we did not test the service with an IP phone set for this review -- was not consistently good and the browser interface, evidently a work in progress, was at times frustrating. We reviewed the 8x8 Virtual Office business phone service last year, using an IP phone set provided by 8x8. For this review, we focused on the Pro features and Virtual Office Online interface.
Setting up and using Virtual Office Pro with the online interface is fairly simple. When subscribers sign up, they receive an email with a user ID and password, which they use to log in at the 8x8 Web page. The subscriber's Virtual Office Online home page gives easy access to most features.
A panel on the left shows buttons for placing a call (there are other ways to do this as well), send a fax, set up a meeting, adjust settings and view My Inbox (which displays messages, calls, scheduled meetings, call recordings, etc.) Clicking any of these buttons launches a second window in the middle of the screen with options for that activity.
Below the main function buttons sits a stack of tabs for accessing different listings of contacts and scheduled meetings: Recent Contacts, My Contacts (personal contacts added by this employee), Corporate Directory (listing of other employees with their 8x8 extensions and numbers) and My Meetings.
It's also possible to display contacts from a Microsoft Exchange directory in the 8x8 interface by inputting the user's email address and Outlook password in Settings. Since 8x8 mainly targets very small businesses with the Virtual Office service, it's not clear how much value this feature will have.
One of the frustrations with the online interface is that it is not possible, at least for now, to import contacts from a Microsoft Office Outlook database stored on the subscriber's computer, which would be of great value to many people. Nor is it possible to import Outlook contacts from a comma- or tab-delimited text file.
An 8x8 technical support agent said that the capability to import Outlook contacts is a feature that will likely be added in future. Popular softphone programs used with other hosted PBX services -- such as those from CounterPath -- already have this feature. In the meantime, Virtual Office subscribers who do not have Exchange must add their contacts manually using an online form.
Presence information -- the status of other employees on the PBX -- displays small icons beside employees' names in the corporate directory (Available, Do Not Disturb, Busy, Invisible).
Clicking on a person's name in any of the contact lists brings up a window with tabs that let the subscriber send a fax, initiate a chat session or view a history record showing past calls, chats and messages to and from that person.