Ireland at the heart of enigma that is the ‘presence’ revolution

6 Aug 2009

If you really want to catch what the ‘next big thing’ in technology is going to be, just look over the shoulder of a teenager and see what they’re up to. Many of the technologies that are being used on Bebo, Facebook and YouTube are just a hair’s breadth away from becoming the corporate tools of the next decade.

For much of the Nineties and the last decade, email was seen as the ‘killer app’ of the business world. But it has become cluttered with spam and adds to information anxiety levels when it all becomes too much.

But ‘presence’ tools, from bog-standard instant messaging (IM) to social networking tools that show whether the person is online, out to lunch or in a meeting and that route your communication to an email, an IM, a voice message, a Skype or a mobile phone call, will become the killer app of the business world for the next decade.

This ‘killer app’ goes under the rather daunting sobriquet Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP for short, and will be the glue that will combine the many modes of communication we grapple with today.

SIP is a protocol that involves multimedia elements such as video, voice, chat, gaming and virtual reality and can establish multimedia sessions or internet telephone calls for two people or large groups of people and identify users wherever they are and on whatever device they want to communicate with.

At Avaya’s R&D operation in Sandyford in Dublin, some 110 skilled innovators are hard at work developing the technologies that are taken for granted by digital natives but are already creeping into the business world. In 2005 an Irish technology company called Spectel was acquired by Avaya in a US$103m all-cash transaction and its work is beginning to go global.

One afternoon in Paris in 2005 I met with the then chief technology officer of Avaya, Mun-Yen Leong, and he revealed that one of the reasons for the acquisition of Spectel was a product called DataXchange, a SIP-based software that enables data sharing such as collaborative working on vital documents during video and audio conferences taking place across the world.

Just how visionary that technology was can be seen by how such capabilities are at the heart of new technologies from players such as Microsoft, whoseBusiness Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) enables executives across the world to communicate and collaborate on documents.

Avaya country manager Jason Flynn took me on a tour of the Sandyford facility where the R&D work being conducted is as advanced as what is happening anywhere in the world, even Silicon Valley.

As we glide past racks of telecoms equipment Flynn explains: “SIP gives executives more capabilities to communicate combining voice, data, web and video.”

He tells me that many of the technologies developed in Sandyford have gone into Avaya’s new Aura unified communications platform and that the operation is the Centre of Excellence for Aura.

“Presence is at the heart of this technology. It knows where you are. If I’m travelling to London and someone rings me at my desk or looks me up on the corporate network they will know if I’m available to take my call. In the same movement they can patch me into a conference call or show me a document on my handset.

“The key point of all of this is that it is happening on a company’s data network, the calls are not costing the company an arm and a leg. The result, a firm’s fixed and mobile costs go down substantially. At the end of the day SIP is just a data packet on the company network,” says Flynn.

The head of the R&D operation at Sandyford, Mark Dillon, explains that return on investment via Aura is a key reason for governments, large enterprises and small businesses to focus on unified communications.

“It essentially allows businesses to mirror the capabilities of the World Wide Web but on their own terms and on their own network. They can integrate SIP with their Microsoft Outlook email software as well as tools such as Skype for internet phone calls and Google Docs for presentation. They can do this all within one website if they wish.

“The technology also includes text-to-speech biometrics so that if you are at an airport and you want to dictate an email to colleagues you can just talk into your mobile phone or pull your colleagues into a conference call if you can see on the screen that they are not ‘on a call’ or ‘in a meeting’.

“Spectel’s conference bridge technology is at the heart of this game-changing technology. Not bad for something built in Dublin,” Dillon says.

Flynn explains that the Aura platform is ‘technology agnostic’, meaning it can be provided by any telecoms operator or used on any business network. “In the current environment if a business doesn’t get a return on investment in 12 months, people aren’t interested.

“At the same time they are using the recession to look at new ways of running their business, including flexible working and home shoring strategies. We are currently engaging with the Government on how this technology could marry with its cost-saving strategies.

“It is the same with most businesses today. Technology discussions have morphed into financial discussions and instead of talking technology we are talking with financial controllers about what things the technology will take off the balance sheet and when the return on investment will arrive. We recently worked with a company on a €4m deal and were able to yield a return on investment within six months.”

Flynn agrees that many of the abilities teens take for granted on sites such as Facebook, such as who’s available and online right now, are surfacing in the business world.

“Watch the kids and see how well they can multi-task. They can toggle between video calls and collaborate with friends and colleagues while keeping numerous conversations going. The future will be about instant access and instant sharing,” Flynn concludes.

Pictured: Jason Flynn, country manager, Avaya Ireland

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years