Monday, January 15, 2007

The Future of Business Communications

I've been working with the Microsoft UCG Vision Team for the past 10 months or so, to (as they say) provide valuable, contextual insight into technology, business and workplace issues and trends. I am not a technologist by any stretch of the imagination, though am fascinated by technology and how to best use it within my profession. The concepts of collaborative technology intrigues and fascinates me though, I must admit much of it escaped me in how it would be applied and best used, not only in my world but those of my clients.

Just before the holidays (2006) I was invited to Objectworld to see a demonstration of how this technology works. It blew me away, answered all the questions I had and then some and left me with the perspective "Why in the world are we working any other way?" I believe that in most cases, the answer to that question has a great deal to do with the lack of understanding of just what is possible.

The day I visited Objectworld was also the launch of my article about Rising Stars in Canadian Government Executive Magazine and coincidently in the same issue was a brilliant article by David Levy, the CEO of Objectworld putting into words what most of us can wrap our heads around, just what collaborative technology can mean to an organization. I had asked David and the editor of the magazine if I could reprint it as why reinvent the wheel when this describes it to a "T"? So for all of you who would like to better understand what this might mean for you, and with their gracious permission, here it is.

Donna Karlin

The future of business communications - by David Levy

Three years ago, keen observers would have noticed the beginning of a new era of organizational communications, or more specifically a new era of how communications are going to be delivered.

The convergence of telephony services (phone calls, voicemail, fax, etc.) into the IT data center (where e-mail, database software and other data services are managed) marks the opportunity for reduced costs, simpler administration and enhanced productivity. This is equally true for businesses and governments, regardless of their size.

Unified Messaging (getting your voicemail in your e-mail inbox or having “Emily” read your e-mails to you over the phone) promises the opportunity to receive messages across a variety of devices, whether these messages are e-mail, voicemail or fax. Unified Communications provides the opportunity to manage your calls and messages in the way that suits you best – that is, to make voice and fax as user-centric as e-mail is today.

For evidence of this ongoing shift, one need look no further than the announcement by Microsoft in June that they plan to develop voice products for the enterprise market. Yes, the largest software company in the world is getting into the telecommunications business, or, rather, they are moving telecommunications into the information systems business. And they are not alone. With Microsoft entering the market through their announced partnership with Nortel, and IBM partnering with 3Com, and the Cisco and Siemens partnership, it is clear all of these moves are about Unified Communications.

All three partnerships between the industry giants take different delivery approaches. Nevertheless, all three describe Unified Communications as the transition of voice and fax services from proprietary, device- and location-centric hardware and software to the delivery of voice and fax services as open, standards-based software. The opportunity to lead this market is substantial and the benefits to delivering all communications in an organization through the IT data centre are tremendous.

You may recall the proprietary nature of computing in the 1980s and 90s. Telephone systems were also proprietary and specialized. Networking systems (hubs, routers, switches) were also largely proprietary and specialized. As was the data center. The specialization of vendors and their offerings reflected, and still does reflect, the separation of these three silos.

However, over the 90s it become financially advantageous to both network and data center vendors to make their products more open and interoperable, and to sell on volume. For telecommunications vendors, however, it remained, and largely remains, business as usual. And yet, the competitive business advantages for a single system to handle voice, fax, e-mail and other kinds of business communications have never been greater. Three seemingly disparate trends have made telephony as software not just possible but inevitable.

First, computing has continued to evolve, becoming more open, more flexible, simultaneously cheaper and yet more powerful. This trend has resulted in the gradual elimination of the need for proprietary, stand-alone and expensive single-purpose hardware.

Second, the number of communication devices has become greater and ways of communicating more diverse. The office phone of the 1970s has given way to today’s feature-rich office phone, the cell-phone, the soft-phone, the home phone, the e-mail, the instant messaging system, the video-conference and more, with an increased need to communicate seamlessly across all these devices.

Finally, with all the technical ground work in place, and a growing demand from the market, the only remaining variable was a matter of logistics: how to standardize the flow of voice and fax traffic over a data network in a way that allows for real-time collaboration. With the wide acceptance of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), this problem was solved. The rise in easy-to-manage, user-centric IT models, like Microsoft Active Directory, has made it possible to reorganize telephony systems into the IT data center as software that administers users, rather than just their devices or their locations.

The result is a telephony system that's as user-centric, cost-effective and easy to manage as e-mail. With aging, limited and proprietary technology, the traditional telecommunications vendors are unable to accommodate these trends. Relying on a PBX today to meet all your business communications needs is like relying on a corner mailbox rather than selling an e-mail system, or on a calculator rather than a spreadsheet application. Instead, the future is VoIP, Unified Messaging and Unified Communications, Interactive Voice Response, and other services delivered as software. The benefits, particularly to the public sector, are substantial.

For government, Unified Communications lowers cost by being able to use commodity hardware (servers, phones, gateways, Internet, ODBC and SOA implementations), but also eases concerns regarding vendor lock-in and future-proofing. Imagine never being billed for long-distance calls to remote offices and teleworkers, and being able to change desktop phone deployments as easily as you change a printer.

Unified Communications also simplifies and homogenizes network topology and simplifies administration, something especially useful in larger, heterogeneous computing environments in which resources are already stretched. Imagine a single point of administration for each user’s desktop computer, their e-mail, their desktop phone and their cell-phone, all managed by simple Windows-based interfaces, seamlessly and in real-time with centralized security and policy. Unified Communications enhances productivity. Imagine routing calls, faxes and e-mails to an employee wherever they are, whether in a branch office, corporate office, working at home or on the road, with whatever device they happen to be using. Imagine never missing an important call or providing simple, phone-based self-service to customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Everything from initial purchase, deployment, configuration, operations, management, administration and maintenance of organizational communications will cost less, be easier to manage while providing employees with the tools they need to be more productive.

Already, IT managers are assuming increased responsibility for communications (purchasing, operating and administering), in what analysts described as the coming $40B battleground. It will be interesting to see how many software vendors make announcements to enter the unified communications market and what approaches they will take within the coming months.

David Levy is chief executive officer of Objectworld Communications in Ottawa.

Reprinted from Canadian Government Executive Magazine with permission


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