NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- What is it about Americans and their phones? Every time I turn around, giants such as Avaya, Verizon (VZ) - Get Report, Google (GOOG) - Get Report or Comcast (CMCSA) - Get Report or startups such as eVoice, Onebox or Toktumi just can't help themselves from noodling up new ways to make and receive business phone calls. To wit, a few weeks ago, AT&T (T) - Get Report -- which, let's face it, has a habit of reinventing itself into oblivion -- rolled out a product called Office@Hand.
Basically a repackaged version of a product made by San Mateo, Calif.-based virtual telephony provider RingCentral, Office@Hand angles to sell virtual telephony services to AT&T's 3 million or so small-business customers, with prices starting at $32 per month for two users.
"We wanted to put a very high focus on the small-business market for this product," says Ebrahim Keshavarz, vice president at AT&T for business solutions.
Office@Hand, like other virtual phone products, adds business telephony features to any existing phone line -- a dedicated business 800 number, a dedicated direct line, office extensions, sophisticated call routing, mobile apps and other so-called PBX functionality usually found in professional phone systems.
After testing similar systems for a half-decade, I must admit I am tough on these sorts of virtual telephony tools, particularly for small businesses. Yes, they provide some interesting "gee whiz" functionality. But these days customers already know their vendors' cell phone numbers and really hate dealing with a new phone identity. Plus virtual telephony must be self-provisioned, which means the headache of managing the stupid thing falls on the business owner. Which means the ROI involved can be thin at best.
But to its credit, AT&T, which was duly warned about my dim view of such virtual business phones, set me up with a demo account. And I have been giving Office@Hand the once-over for here in my shop for the past week or so.
What you get
No question, Office@Home offers powerful business phone features at a reasonable cost.
As virtual phone systems go, this one is not bad. Office@Hand is easy to set up: You simply fill out the online forms and start assigning features over the top of any working number for you and your employees. I liked how the system was blissfully based around 800 numbers and not some nutty email identity, so it's easy to manage. And in the four-extension configuration I was using, I was able to set up a fairly complex business phone system in about a half-hour. Each of my remote employees now has his own extension, phone mail, mobile phone integration and yes, even on-hold Muzak. And it all works from a toll free 800 number. Not bad.
Overall, the tool was solid and call routing was good. Mobile integration was particularly slick in our limited use.
Of note, AT&T has come up with an unique billing model for the product: The cost is considered an add-on to your monthly cell bill. So one user on the system needs to be an AT&T cell subscriber. Interesting twist there.
What you don't get
Office@Hand falls short of being a truly professional calling solution or a tool your employees will easily use.
Virtual small-business telephony is just that: a virtual service and one that works atop your existing mobile and landline phones. So all the bugaboos, dead ends and unexpected consequences of life on the mobile Web are in full effect. For example, the line between your personal and business identity is blurry. Yes, the system routes company phone calls to a mobile phone, but, no, it can't parse out the users' phone number; their true caller ID, phone information -- and often their Facebook identity! -- pops up with the call. And there goes your carefully built pretend professional identity.
The functionality increase is also not what you would expect. Most phone systems now come with sophisticated options such as caller ID, call forwarding, conferencing and many others. So much of what Office@Hand provides can be stitched with your existing phones.
Office@Hand is also not cheap. My demo plan was $348 a year! That stands out when tools such as Google Voice are free.
If your business needs a legit business phone identity, Office@Hand is as good as any system I have touched. It is simpler to deal with than others such as Google Voice, offers reasonable services and otherwise creates real value for users. Just be sure you really need a business phone number at all. These days, most customers are perfectly happy to deal with your cell phone.
The fact is, Office@Hand and other virtual phone systems like it run the risk of becoming nothing more than bells and whistles in the wind.
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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.