Today's business world is one without geographical borders. Corporations span states
and continents, and the demand for effective long-distance communication is greater than
ever. Well-managed conferencing systems can bridge these long-distance gaps in real-time,
without the expense and effort of traveling to face-to-face meetings.
According to new strategic research from Frost & Sullivan, U.S. Audio and
Document Conferencing Markets, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the
forecast period 1998-2005 is projected to be 15.2 percent in the conferencing industry.
Currently, the fastest growing segment of the market is the audio and document
conferencing services, accounting for 81 percent of the total market revenues. Service
providers can take advantage of this growth by looking to the history of conferencing, and
then working to provide users with comprehensive carrier-class solutions.
First Came Audio
Audio conferencing was a boon from the start: for the first time, long-distance
communication was real-time. All participants simultaneously learned vital information and
took part in direct discussion and future planning. Proponents of audio conferencing also
heralded its "personal touch": hearing the tone in another participant's voice
was immediately recognized as a more effective and fuller way of communicating than
Real-time visuals, made possible by video conferencing technology, complemented the
benefits of audio conferencing. By incorporating images with sound, conference
participants gained a more complete understanding of complex ideas and plans.
Data conferencing completed the conferencing package. The use of charts and graphs
enhanced conference quality by uniformly relaying factual information and statistics to
conference participants. Functioning separately or as a "layered" solution,
businesses can combine the benefits of one or more conferencing options to effectively
communicate their individual company objectives.
To remain competitive, service providers need to offer complete conferencing options.
It is equally important to appeal to consumers with specific features that improve the
quality of a conference, while ensuring ease of use, reliability, and cost-efficiency in
Service Providers Need One-Stop Shopping
Competition among service providers is the catalyst that drives the development of new
services. Those with the most services and options will maintain a large and loyal
customer base. Why? Customers won't have to shop around for all the services they need.
Just as consumers often opt for large grocery warehouses rather than smaller mom and pop
corner stores, the one-stop telephony shopping experience allows customers to acquire all
their services from one comprehensive vendor rather than numerous small vendors.
Currently, the most sought after conference services focus on customer convenience --
independent scheduling features, for example. A Web browser interface permits participants
to easily organize conference calls without operator assistance. To ensure attendance,
automatically generated e-mail invitations, complete with valid conference PINs and entry
codes, are created.
The independent scheduling feature allows for "unattended" conference calls.
Calls without third party (operator) participation allow users to drive their own
meetings. Service providers recognize that attendees often feel more comfortable in this
less formal setting.
Once a conference is in progress, its successful operation is of utmost importance.
Web-based conferencing systems give operators -- the conference organizers -- the best
tools and options to ensure successful conference completion. With the technology
literally at their fingertips, conference chairpersons and system administrators can alter
conference settings and call, mute, or disconnect users. Web-compatible systems also offer
cross-conference access methods to rapidly and unobtrusively detect and fix problems such
as disconnections or noisy lines. Operators also have the ability to greet, monitor, and
assist users wherever they need help. Appropriate personnel can adapt system settings,
configure the network interface cards, define scheduler options, and assign user
passwords, all from the desktop.
Online billing software is another conferencing convenience. Upon completion of each
conference, billing information -- including overall costs, documentation of minutes
displaying each conference attendee, and the times parties joined or dropped the session
-- is accessible.
All of these features enable customers and third party developers to create their own
custom applications and user interfaces to communicate with the system. With service
providers supplying access to multiple applications from their virtual one-stop shopping
warehouses, the question becomes: How will they manage these applications effectively? The
answer is: A single platform.
Adding Convergence To The Shopping Cart
Offering multiple conferencing options and a plentiful list of related applications is the
perfect business model, in theory. For service providers, effectively managing all those
services with disparate platforms is another story. Confusion and eventual network
inoperability are often the result.
Converging voice, data, and video applications into a single platform solution allows
service providers to manage all their applications in an easy, reliable, and
cost-effective manner. One platform makes troubleshooting simple -- engineers have a
single box-like system to maintain. Often, the entire conferencing system is enclosed in a
casing as small as a microwave oven. In this case, size is directly related to cost: The
smaller the system, the less space it encompasses and the lower the real estate costs are,
based on footprint.
Another cost-related issue is the platform's expandability. The addition of new
features through a simple software upgrade rather than a "forklift" replacement
of the system protects the service provider's initial investment. For example, a telephony
platform initially created to support audio conferencing should be designed to grow with
the network and support emerging applications such as data and voice over the Internet. In
fact, conference software engineers expect the streaming of data and voice over the
Internet to be the most sought-after application of the new millennium.
Conferencing will continue to grow and evolve in response to future market trends and
customer demands. To successfully keep pace with this market, it is necessary for service
providers to be armed with a complete set of applications and a reliable and easy way to
maintain them. What once seemed an impossible luxury is now available. Single, expandable,
reliable, and cost-effective conferencing platforms exist and should be considered first
when service providers deploy carrier-class conferencing solutions.
Robert H. Scott is chairman and co-founder of Octave Communications, a leader in
collaborative telephony applications worldwide. For more information on Octave
Communications and its products, call 603-894-6110, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the company's Web site