On the hunt for this year’s killer app

14 Feb 2008

Few technologies except for email have really changed the way we work. But what new ‘killer apps’ are on the horizon for 2008?

In the early Nineties, when email first began to appear in Irish offices, one managing director of a Midlands factory took to the new messaging system with gusto.

“This is great,” he would crow enthusiastically, while instructing his secretary to print out the important missive and fax it to his client.

Various technologies, ranging from the telex to the Minitel information console, have been trumped as the ‘next big thing’ or ‘killer app’ that would change the way we work forever.

Few, except for email and the increasingly pervasive BlackBerry, have stood the test of time.

This year, several technologies are tipped to come in from the fringes and dramatically transform the way people work.

The forces conspiring to make these technologies viable in 2008 include better packaged products and services from vendors, the availability of higher broadband speeds, the drive to increase IT security and the desire of employees to work more flexibly and remotely.

There are nevertheless obstacles to take-up, both technological and human. Lack of bandwidth will continue to cause problems, believes Richie Howard, director, technology, media and telecommunications industry group, Deloitte.

“The issue in Ireland is will we be able to get sufficient broadband speeds to the home to enable efficient remote working? If you’re working in the technology or finance sectors you might have to send and receive large files, 6MB or 7MB, and you’ll want those downloaded straight away.”

Another big problem in getting new ways of working off the ground is human behaviour. For example, just because the technology to do high-quality videoconferencing is available, this doesn’t mean employees are ready to radically alter their working patterns.

IT managers can be consoled by the fact that many younger employees are already using sophisticated social networking tools in their home life and this provides a big impetus for rollout of this technology in the workplace.

“These things often have a viral nature,” says Richard Moore, information worker business manager, Microsoft Ireland. “It’s rare that new technology would be deployed right across an organisation at the same time. If one department is keen on it, its interest will spill out into the rest of the organisation.”

The top five for 2008:

1. Unified communications

Over the past few years, IT companies have been quick to impress on businesses the merits of technologies like instant messaging (IM) and voice over internet protocol (VoIP).

Despite the productivity claims, neither of these technologies has yet made it into mainstream working culture.

2008 looks like the year when they could finally gain a significant foothold in the market thanks in part to more consolidated products and a name change. ‘Unified communications’ is the buzzword that’s being bandied about and it brings all communication methods – voice, email/IM and video – onto the PC.

Workers can integrate their address books with their communication methods, click-to-call on their desktop using VoIP phones, get calls routed to mobile devices if they are out and about and incorporate voice or video recordings into emails or instant messaging.

“Previously that type of convergence was not possible,” says Moore. “Now you can get an email in your inbox that has a voice recording of someone who was trying to get hold of you. From your desktop you can videoconference.”

The ability this technology will give to workers to collaborate, rather than just communicate, will impact greatly on working culture. Another big draw is the freedom it allows for worker mobility.

“Up until now we’ve had the same old stuff to use – email, IM, phone, databases or documents repositories – but it’s a very static, snapshot-style Web 1.0 experience,” says Mike Roche, chief architect at IBM’s Dublin software lab.

“With unified communications employees can interact and collaborate in the context of the tool and the files they’re working on. They can start to chat and discuss things in context, which is going to make a big difference to how work is done.”

2. Presence technology

Presence technology is gaining ground and is a kind of Bebo for business. It involves employees in an organisation having a public profile on the internal network that will let others see if they are busy, available to work, what their skillset and experience is and their preferred contact method.

“If I want to work with one of my colleagues I can find out immediately if they are in the office using presence technology. It cuts out time wasted playing phone tag,” says John McCabe (pictured), managing director, Damovo. “If they are not available I can locate somebody else with the same skillset easily and contact them straight off the desktop using unified communications.”

3. Videoconferencing

Videoconferencing is tipped for a breakthrough in 2008, expectations raised in large part to increased broadband bandwidth and the introduction of easier-to-use and cheaper products.

Long jaunts across the country or across the water can be minimised using videoconferencing, saving time and money. The technology has improved in recent years, moving from one-on-one video chat to realistic conferencing. Microsoft’s Roundtable device, for example, sits in the centre of a table, takes a panoramic 360-degree shot and then takes a secondary view using a voice-sensitive microphone to give a close-up of the person who is speaking.

4. Mash-ups for business

Non-techies might baulk at the term mash-up but most will already have used them online. Since the release of Google Maps in 2005, mash-up applications have sprung up everywhere on the internet.

Property sites which embed Google Maps to enable visitors locate advertised houses without leaving the site are just the tip of the mash-up iceberg, with more complex applications aggregating and overlaying information as diverse as local weather, upcoming conferences and movements of army battalions onto the Google Maps platform.

The biggest online companies have made application program interfaces (APIs) available to help developers come up with new information services that are composites of other online services, for example a car-pooling website that uses Facebook profiles to connect people or a travel guide that incorporates YouTube videos.

5. Virtualisation

Virtualisation technology has traditionally focused on the data centre and the back-office enterprise systems. 2008 could see virtualisation conquer the client or desktop landscape as companies seek to enhance security and reduce power consumption.

Client virtualisation allows companies to host applications and operating systems on a server and stream them out to desktops as required.

“What’s made it possible now for companies is the standardisation of technology and the introduction of multicore processors which are providing the horsepower to run multiple sessions on client systems simultaneously,” says Paul Kenny, Dell’s global infrastructure consulting services manager for Ireland.

“Another driver for virtualisation in the client space is around isolating specific applications from your core business applications.”

“You can separate applications like email and web browsing, which attract a lot of external contact into your infrastructure, from the operating system. It provides that extra bit of safety,” adds Kenny.

“Companies are seriously assessing the feasibility of this technology for their working environments.”

Balancing the work life with the social life

Last year, Big Five consultancy Accenture introduced an internal companywide social networking site to help employees collaborate across long distances.

The site combines presence technology with unified communications to help employees find the right colleagues to work with on specific projects.

With 160,000 employees worldwide, including 1,700 in Ireland, the site is beneficial in helping Accenture optimise the diverse talent available in the organisation.

Every employee has an updatable homepage through which they can be reached on the Accenture voice and data network.

“Having that ability to collaborate and work together globally is one of the things we see as a key differentiator for us and a way to reduce costs,” says Kamran Ikram, head of Accenture’s workplace technology and collaboration practice.

“It’s a way of finding the right people to talk to, especially when people are looking for the right people for particular projects or tasks.”

“These technologies help introduce operational efficiencies,” says Barry O’Connell, head of Accenture hi-tech and communications division in Ireland.

“In some of the studies we found managers can spend up to two hours a day searching for information and 50pc of what they find is useless. With these unified communications and with people having access to good information, that problem is solved.”

By Niall Byrne