A passion for voice

17 Mar 2005

CeBit is the world’s biggest IT trade show, in fact the biggest trade show of any description. Ireland’s equivalent, ICT Expo, would fit into a corner of one of its cavernous halls. And there were 30 of them. German mobile player E-Plus even went to the trouble of building its own dome-shaped structure in the hope that it would attract plenty of visitors. However, a murderous cover version of The Beatles’ Hello Goodbye blaring out from the entrance on a continuous loop probably had just the opposite effect.

E-Plus was not alone in going big at CeBit. In fact, the surprise of this year’s event was the strong showing by the mobile industry in general. With the dust barely settled on last month’s mobile mega-event, the 3GSM conference at Cannes, the cellular boys obviously still felt the need to spend even more shareholders’ money by putting on another blockbusting show at CeBit.

Either by accident or design, the mammoth stands of Nokia and Samsung — the world’s No 1 and No 2 biggest handset vendors — were right opposite each other, like two fighting dogs eyeing each other up in the ring. But Finland’s finest was so short on news post-Cannes that it decided not to hold a press conference at all.

Neither company could claim to possess the stand with the biggest acreage. That honour, at least to this observer’s eye, went to O2, whose blue-themed, tech-laden emplacement was so big it could have doubled as a football pitch.

Data, as usual, dominated the show. Data in all shapes and sizes; software and applications to blow the mind and often the bank balance as well. However down in hall 13, a US company that was once owned by voice network giant Lucent Technologies was singing quite a different tune. Avaya’s message was not about the inevitably of data but the power of voice communication.

On the face of it, this is hardly surprising given that it sells PBXs, the communication servers that run corporate phone systems. But dig a bit deeper and its message becomes worth listening to.

Avaya made several major announcements at CeBit around its technology, the most significant of which was that it is partnering with Nokia to integrate its PBXs with mobile devices running Nokia’s Series 60 operating system (OS). Avaya said that its Communications Manager software would turn such devices into fully fledged office phones, extending useful features such as call transfer, multi-party conferencing and call recording to mobile users. Users will be able to obtain this functionality by downloading the client software for Communication Manager to both new and existing Series 60 second-edition devices.

According to Geoffrey Baird, vice-president and general manager of enterprise mobility at Avaya, the application is to be launched in the summer and jointly marketed by Nokia and Avaya.

In a similar vein, Avaya also announced that it is to extend its partnership with Symbian, a consortium of mobile phone firms that licenses Symbian OS, a popular smart phone OS. Through the partnership, Avaya will develop applications that deliver advanced enterprise telephony and collaboration capabilities to Symbian smart phones, including those manufactured by Nokia, Samsung and Panasonic.

As most mobiles are not smart and don’t run the Series 60 or Symbian software, it may be some time before they can boast the same capabilities as their desk-bound counterparts. Don Peterson, chairman and CEO of Avaya, concedes that PBX-enabled mobiles could take a while to catch on but is confident that it will happen. He argues that innovative technology generally gets “bootlegged” into organisations by early adopters who can see its value and it grows from there. “In the late Eighties both Nortel and AT&T stopped investing in cell phones because there were only 100,000 [estate agents] in the US and they thought once [this group] had them who else needed them. Sometimes applications and user requirements only become obvious when users see their capability,” he notes.

He also believes that all the hype around data has all but swamped the case for voice.

“The high-utility communication for people is voice but it’s been totally absent from the data world. One reason for that is that it’s not easy to integrate with data, although we’re making progress. A second is that the voices in the data world that we all listen to — the Ciscos, the Microsofts, the Dells — don’t have a business if voice is the communication medium. The reality is voice is what people want and has been since the beginning of time.”

Steve Blood, research vice-president for enterprise communications at Gartner, agrees. “Voice is a key component of collaboration. Imagine what video would be like without voice or with poor voice quality? Voice is a fundamental component of what we do. A lot of the fixed/mobile convergence issues are about collaborating more effectively. You cannot do it without good quality voice. We’ve taken it for granted for far too long. So Avaya is absolutely right to focus on it.”

The part of Avaya’s mobile-to-PBX integration strategy that Blood does question is its decision to partner with just one handset vendor — albeit a large one such as Nokia — and not a range of them. He also points out that Avaya is not the only communications company working on this problem. “Ericsson has probably the most integrated enterprise-to-cellular handset solutions on the market — more so than Avaya,” he says, adding that Avaya’s new partnership could be intended more as a proof of concept than something that’s ready to shake up the market.

Avaya was spun off from Lucent Technologies in late 2000. Although it struggled initially as the technology recession hit, the company has been profitable for the past three years and is now the leader in the global internet protocol telephony market and the world No 2 in the corporate PBX market with target revenues of US$5bn this year.

Peterson says the single biggest challenge facing Avaya is growing revenue. “If the dust settles on all this five years from now and we still have 12pc market share [of lines installed] of the global PBX market we will have failed. We would like to have 25pc but 40pc would be better.”

Opening the technology fair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder marvelled at technologies that promise to revolutionise work and leisure

By Brian Skelly