Putting a face to the voice

4 Aug 2004

Up until now, the case for convergence, and the argument for voice-over internet protocol technology in particular, has largely centred on saving money. Unifying communications channels over a single IP network is cheaper and more efficient, not only for the customer but also for the service provider.

As a sign of the times and of a technology coming of age, attention is now turning to other benefits. Communication specialists such as Nortel Networks, who supply convergence solutions to service providers and enterprise customers, have been exploring new applications that these networks could enable.

Crucial to the progress of Nortel’s work has been session initiation protocol, an emerging industry standard that is designed to deliver multimedia services over IP networks. The upshot could be a fundamental change in the way people work together within an organisation.

Nortel’s most potent manifestation of this was first launched here in April and is due for a version upgrade around September. The MCS 5100 multimedia services platform delivers a set of integrated software applications to the desktop that includes instant messaging, file transfer, audio and video conferencing as well as call management and personalisation features.

While the various components and collaboration tools are not particularly new, delivering them in a one-stop product from a single vendor is what differentiates Nortel from the competition, according to its Irish business manager, Barry Dillon (pictured). “Traditionally, organisations have had instant messaging in one box and collaboration tools such as conferencing in another,” he explained. “This meant different suppliers and different service level agreements.”

Director of enterprise multimedia systems, Charlie Wade, picks up the theme: “This is the first time that anyone could buy them all together in one open standards system.”

Both Dillon and Wade were at pains to point out that they are not trying to sell their enterprise customers a replacement product but a platform that easily integrates with an existing telephony infrastructure. The high-end benefit is a whole new way of working, though Dillon is too savvy to expect such a pitch to win over financial directors that are more interested in the bottom line.

He has a head full of statistics on the financial benefits and he’s not afraid to use them. “In terms of hard savings, we’re talking about a return on investment inside three months on the conferencing alone,” he says, calculating that a typical company may pay around €5,000 a week to a third-party service provider based on one hour of videoconferencing. When it comes to soft savings, there are the less measurable benefits of a ‘call management’ system. This gives you real-time information on the availability – or ‘presence awareness’ – of colleagues, as opposed to taking half an hour to make contact.

Wade painted the scenario of someone looking for information from someone else in an organisation. When that person is unavailable, other people become involved, culminating in multiple replies to what should have been a single exchange. This is precisely the kind of inefficiency that the new system should eradicate.

In a live demonstration of Nortel’s own deployment of the platform, the ability to discern the availability of the recipient – on another call or offline and unavailable – was impressive; yet the fun really started when a call was taken. The exchange seamlessly moved from instant messaging to an ad hoc video call to document transfer. With a media server a team can also work together and make changes on the same document.

The seamless use of different communication tools offers profound possibilities for reinventing the way organisations operate, particularly those with multi-site locations or a large mobile sales force. But even more basic is Nortel’s aspiration to kick start videoconferencing, an application that has struggled to take off.

“People will start to do it from their desk instead of from a dedicated room at the end of a corridor. They just aren’t being used at the moment,” said Wade, who claimed its video facility works perfectly well with a basic broadband connection and a €15 camera. For the platform as whole, however, its efficiency is determined by the quality of the organisation’s wide area network.

In Wade’s analysis of IP deployment the starting point is basic convergence, but the second phase is about building a high performance centralised infrastructure. With this as the foundation an organisation can enter phase three, which is where the new platform comes in, increasing productivity through the rollout of multimedia services to the employee desktop.

“The days of everyone being in one place are gone,” said Wade, who used Nortel’s own corporate tag line: ‘business without boundaries’ to describe how its new technologies can surmount the challenge of multi-site collaboration, creating a smarter organisation.

If there was an unanswered question, it was not about the technology but about the ability of organisations to adapt to new ways of working. More videoconferencing would mean less face-to-face meetings, a prospect that would surely send a generation of executives into cold turkey.

By Ian Campbell