Welcome to the real world

12 Feb 2004

Imagine you are driving to a meeting and your boss calls you on your mobile. He’s looking for the latest sales figures but you don’t have them in your head or your briefcase. You say you will get right back to him. You dial into your company private branch exchange (PBX) and say that you would like to arrange a conference call with your sales team. A software-based virtual assistant converts the voice message into text and sends it as an instant message (IM) to the computer screens of your five sales colleagues.

A minute later the two members of the team who are available at that time ring you back and the three of you have a conference call. Armed with the information you need, you put it in a text message to your boss. Problem solved.

This actually happened to Gary Paris (pictured left), a senior US-based Siemens Information and Communication Networks (ICN) executive, who was in Dublin last week for the launch of Openscape, a new group-working software application from the German technology giant. Florida-based Paris, who heads up the Openscape programme worldwide, used this example to illustrate some of the potential applications of the new system. He added the punchline that his boss was actually contacting him during a break in a board meeting, making a prompt response even more urgent.

The launch of Openscape was also used by Microsoft to plug Live Communications Server (LCS) 2003, its industrial-grade in IM platform that ties in with Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003 platforms. Siemens and Microsoft spoke of a “shared vision” where Openscape would provide the gateway to the communications infrastructure and devices and LCS the access to popular business applications such as Word and Outlook.

Clive Ryan, business group head, client and information worker with Microsoft Ireland, took delight in informing his audience that IM was about to hit the corporate domain in a big way. Quoting analyst figures, he said the number of IM users worldwide would grow from the current 200 million to 500 million by 2006 and whereas business users of IM account for only 5pc of the total, by 2006 the share would be 70pc.

Openscape is not just about IM — though that’s part of what it offers. It is better understood as a technology that provides a single point of access or gateway to communications devices on the one hand — mobile phones, desktop phones, laptops, personal digital assistants and so on — and applications such as email, IM and Word on the other. Each Openscape user is provided with a personal portal through which he or she manages his or her information flow. Users can set rules to specify what format they would like to receive and send information, and with whom.

For example, if you are in wall-to-wall meetings and want to block all mobile calls except those from a key customer, you set that rule on your portal. Likewise, the system allows you to view the availability of key colleagues via a special window on your PC before you make contact.

Five years ago the need for software such as Openscape would have been limited. What has happened in the meantime is that many office workers have become more mobile (the ‘e-working generation’), using mobile phones and laptops to unchain themselves from the office. E-working has many advantages but can also lead to problems, especially when the e-worker’s voicemail is on and they cannot be tracked down.

Speaking at the launch, Vijay Bhagavath (pictured right), a senior strategist on the Openscape project, noted that inefficiencies were creeping into the workplace caused by the growing amount of time people were spending playing ‘telephone tag’ with colleagues — what a recent Georgetown University study described as “the information-related costs of doing business”. Bhagavath noted that we can rely less and less on sticking our head over the partition to check whether colleagues are around. Chances are they are on the road or in meetings. If we want to contact them urgently, we need a way of doing that. This “presence awareness” is what Openscape can provide, he said, adding with just a touch of hyperbole, “we have mimicked proximity to the scale of the whole planet”.

Every new product targeting the corporate market needs ‘business drivers’ — compelling reasons why an IT manager or CEO should go out and buy it for their organisation. These are obvious for applications such as email and devices such as mobile phones but less so, perhaps, for Openscape, a technology that most organisations would see as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘need to have’ at this stage.

The claimed benefits of Openscape boil down to two areas. First, it supports real-time communication within the organisation, meaning that information is available when and where it is needed. Secondly, the software does not require expensive new servers and other equipment to run; it works in tandem with existing infrastructure such as PBXs and Microsoft’s IM software. The main cost is the software licence, currently about US$200 per user.

Openscape was launched in the US in November and is currently being showcased around Europe and South America. So far about 25 customers worldwide have bought the system. In the early stages, Siemens is targeting certain key information-intensive industries to which it feels the technology is most relevant, including financial services, healthcare, education, public sector, retail and professional services. According to Paris: “We see these industries as those more likely to adopt the system but this is still early-stage, early-adopter technology. We don’t expect to have thousands of users immediately; it will happen over time.”

By Brian Skelly