VoIP In The Palm Of Your Hand
BY SEAN KENT
Sometime in the near future:
It is Saturday morning. Alan sits alone at a table in a coffee shop slowly
sipping a large cappuccino. His advanced smart phone sits on the table. It
is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi so he can read up on the latest
events of the day on a global news Web site while simultaneously listening
to some new MP3 files from his favorite bandï¿½s upcoming album. With his
wireless Bluetooth earpiece, he doesnï¿½t have to take his phone with him when
he gets up to retrieve extra napkins. The singerï¿½s voice continues singing
in his ear both to and from the napkin and condiment caddy.
Alan returns to his small table and is about midway though listening to
the second song when he sees a screen pop telling him that a call is coming
in from his friend Lance. Alan is subscribed to a unified communications (UC)
service. Using its ï¿½find meï¿½ feature, the UC service recognizes that he is
located in a Wi-Fi cloud and automatically determines that it will be
cheaper and offer better quality of service to deliver the call via VoIP
over Wireless LAN (VoWLAN).
Since it is still early on Saturday, Alan decides to let the call ring
through to his voice mail. Heï¿½s trying to keep his options open for the
weekend, but he wants to know what Lance is calling about, so he clicks a
button on the phone to activate the listen-in voice mail feature. Lance
begins leaving the message, which the UC service instantly turns into a
real-time audio stream. He tells Alanï¿½s voice mail that he has scored
tickets to that nightï¿½s basketball game.
Alan thinks that sounds like a great way to spend the evening, so he
breaks into the call and tells Lance to count him in. The two hash out all
of the details, say their goodbyes and Alan goes back to listening to the
new MP3 tracks. He thinks about how his weekend is shaping up to be pretty
great, takes another sip of cappuccino and smiles.
It is difficult to tell exactly just how far in the future that scenario
might happen, but all of the essential elements are beginning to fall into
place. Itï¿½s clear that at least two things have to happen first ï¿½ the right
access technologies have to be consolidated on a smart phone that people
want to use, and wireless data networks have to be properly engineered to
support VoIP. These are issues that handset makers and carriers must
address, but application vendors, too, will be affected by the outcome.
The future could be coming sooner, rather than later. VoIP has been on
the upswing for the past several months in North America. While VoIPï¿½s
popularity is on the rise, it hasnï¿½t reached widespread acceptance yet. That
is due, at least in part, to current market circumstances. VoIP proponents
have tried to sell equipment and services based on increased cost
efficiencies. The benefits for the enterprise are obvious, but consumers are
being forced to choose between VoIP and similarly priced traditional
local/long distance service packages. The cost benefits arenï¿½t proving great
enough to motivate the general consumer to switch. That lack of motivation
has caused VoIP companies to look for other value propositions the
technology could offer.
Consistently, VoIP sellers have found that it is the increased level of
customization that is attractive to consumers. With traditional telephony,
users donï¿½t have the freedoms of VoIP. They lack the ability to change
account parameters, they canï¿½t decouple physical access from the service to
take their phone number with them wherever they go, and they donï¿½t have
easy-to-use call control features.
For application vendors who provide enhanced call control applications
and unified messaging features, the increased focus on VoIPï¿½s
customizability, both at wireline (and eventually) wireless levels, means
there will be new opportunities. Those services like UC that didnï¿½t pan out
when they were introduced near the turn of the millennium will get new life.
To understand why UC is poised for a comeback, itï¿½s probably a good idea
to first talk about why it didnï¿½t succeed initially. About 10 years ago,
telephone companies were offering 1-500-NXX-XXXX find me/follow me services
ï¿½ an enhanced service that was a precursor to UC. Every carrier deployed
some sort of find me/follow me offering, but programming the service to ring
through properly was a nightmare. Users, many of whom simply werenï¿½t tech
savvy, had to wade through confusing IVR prompts and hope for the best.
Perhaps more importantly, there was a fundamental disconnect in the idea
that people wanted to be reachable by phone no matter where they were. Even
with the ubiquity of mobile phones today, people tend to give out their
mobile number only to individuals with whom they want to speak. Most people
prefer to avoid receiving random phone calls.
The personal 500 and 800 services with find-me/follow-me did survive but
never became popular. The number of people using the service today is
extremely limited. Unified communications suffered a similar fate, but its
problem wasnï¿½t with programming. Like the traditional 500 find me/follow me,
UC faced a similar fundamental disconnect. In this case, the problem for UC
was that people tend to check and use their mailboxes (voice, e-mail, fax,
etc.) discreetly and exclusively, meaning they didnï¿½t want to go to a single
source to check all of their mail.
With original UC, users were required to use complex IVR menus or log on to
a desktop computer to change parameters of their service. The time it took
to log on, check the various mailboxes and configure the system was no
faster than checking individual mailboxes on the separate devices to which
they were assigned. UC promised to help users save time and improve
communications management, but in its initial format, those promises turned
out to be empty, leaving users no incentive to buy into UC.
In addition, as items like the Blackberry and Wi-Fi-enabled laptops were
introduced, UC features such as the ability to listen to a text-to-speech
version of an e-mail via the mobile phone or home phone became tedious and
largely pointless. Yet, while they rendered some services obsolete, these
mobile devices breathed new life into features like visual voice mail and
e-mail notification of new voice mail messages.
Now, back to our friend in the coffee shop. Alanï¿½s advanced smart phone
is a consolidated mobile computer/phone, which simultaneously supports GSM,
GPRS and Wi-Fi network access and is packaged within the PDA form factor.
The growing popularity of smart phones signals market acceptance of that
form factor as acceptable to the user for receiving voice and data. Users
did not accept earlier UC attempts to use the PC and an accompanying headset
as a voice delivery device. As the design of smart phones continues to
improve, and with the addition of new power-efficient network access
technologies and standards-based VoIP-enabled applications, the line between
phone and mobile computer will be blurred even further.
Wi-Fi already has been integrated into laptops. Wi-Fi-enabled smart
phones are the next step. While this might be alarming to some wireless
service providers, it neednï¿½t be. The access-selection feature built into
the phone will enable the smart phone to determine the best way for the user
to communicate. In areas where Wi-Fi connectivity is prevalent, the phone
will recognize the better quality of service and cost advantage available
through Wi-Fi and connect the user via VoWLAN. And in cases were VoWLAN will
not work, such as in a moving vehicle or in areas where Wi-Fi coverage is
poor, the phoneï¿½s access-selection feature will recognize that the best
quality of service is available via the cellular network and will connect a
An enhanced UC application vendor will supply the VoWLAN-aware, find-me
service and the listen-in voice mail feature. These particular UC features
have the potential to be highly attractive to users. The leading complaint
of many mobile phone users is that cellular coverage is poor or that phones
donï¿½t work well indoors. Also, people complain that voice mail doesnï¿½t offer
them the ability to screen calls the way an answering machine does. With a
VoWLAN-aware UC network-hosted service and the Wi-Fi-enabled smart phones,
those concerns would be eliminated.
The only real roadblock that remains for these technologies is that the
price points are still too high. Smart phones are expensive when compared to
mobile phones, and they lack enough features to replace the highly mobile
Advances in VoIP use may still be a few years in the future, but for now,
companies that develop and sell VoIP equipment and services will need to
look beyond the traditional ï¿½cost efficienciesï¿½ selling point. VoIP has
other value propositions, including better quality of service and greater
mobility. Focusing on these additional values will help to increase general
consumer interest in VoIP.
Sean Kent is Director of Architecture/Technology for SS8 Networks,
which engineers a complete range of enhanced messaging products and
applications that enable service providers to profitably operate converged,
hybrid networks ï¿½ bridging PSTN and IP capabilities. The companyï¿½s
carrier-class offerings allow network operators to optimize their investment
in traditional, legacy networks and seamlessly transition to next-generation
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