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Feature Article
June 2004


VoIP Enters a New Era

BY JEFFREY T. FORD & BALZ WYSS, Ph.D.

How many times have you or someone you know made an urgent call into the home office from the road, frantically looking for help because of an inability to access that critical e-mail, Word document, or other file that could make the difference in a sales presentation? Or, perhaps you�ve been a customer with a question regarding an invoice, and have had the �pleasant� experience of bouncing from agent to agent, re-explaining your dilemma every time you speak to someone over the phone.

 

While these two scenarios are familiar for many of us, they symbolize the real value and exciting opportunities that Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephony represents to a business. Although many industry insiders see the merits of VoIP only from a networking perspective � collapsing a voice and data infrastructure into one network � we are witnessing a whole new generation in business-specific applications that leverage VoIP to deliver presence, collaboration, messaging, and mobility � tools customers clearly want. So that an executive, currently in distress, can receive e-mail over his wireless phone while waiting for a flight or a call center agent can receive the account history of a specific customer even before taking the call. VoIP applications improve business processes, increase customer satisfaction, and enhance efficiency. And we�re only at the starting point.
 

THE EMERGENCE OF THE SMART IP ENDPOINT
As we�ve probably all experienced over the past five years, the look of the typical enterprise user tool set � desktop phone, computer, and perhaps a PDA � has evolved into an organic, symbiotic entity that can incorporate the familiar with the advanced.


While the desktop computers, telephones, and cell phones remain the backbone of the enterprise, we�re seeing the proliferation of wireless devices, like PDAs and PocketPCs as valuable communications and productivity tools.


As diverse as these and other endpoints are, there is a commonality they all share; the ability to deliver those enterprise-specific applications that can positively and quantifiably impact business processes for the end user. Today�s customer isn�t concerned about the illusory benefits of converging their networks. The perceived cost savings of converging voice and data into one network is not a convincing argument for an enterprise to migrate to VoIP. Accessing these new enhancement applications, regardless of time or geographic constraints will be driving the decision for many companies to integrate a converged infrastructure.


Today, endpoints come in all shapes and flavors. Virtually any device connected to an IP network can be VoIP-enabled, including many in the telephony realm, such as set-top boxes, gateways, Web pads, scanners, and point-of-sale devices. As diverse as the endpoints appear, there are several common and consistent themes they share in simplifying and enhancing worker experience.

 

VISUALIZATION FOR EASE OF USE
Certainly, the move to provide more visualization is a strong enhancement to an endpoint. Some of the more advanced IP phones and handheld devices already deliver four-color graphics and video capabilities. And what�s particularly interesting is that they�ve been developed for more than the apparent cosmetic reasons. Beauty serves a functional purpose, too.


Consider how charts and graphic representations can make an impact to the sales manager who instantly needs to capture and analyze time-sensitive reports, regardless of where he is located, or a warehouse manager who must walk the tightrope everyday between ordering supplies and keeping inventory costs under control. In both these examples, managers can immediately keep tabs on their business processes in an easily digestible manner, just by leveraging real-time information that is delivered to a color display on an IP endpoint. VoIP delivers simplicity to the end user.

 

INTERCONNECTIVITY & MULTIMEDIA COLLABORATION
Today�s employee is constantly involved in one form of communication or another. Often times, phone conversations lead into Internet research, which can then progress to e-mail correspondence, and even evolve to sending an instant message to a workgroup member on another continent. Would it make sense for these varied communication devices to reside in one location, easily accessible to the end user?


Many in our industry think so, and that�s one reason we are seeing a �convergence� of IP endpoints. The browser-based IP phone is not created to deliver the advanced, robust tools of the PC. It is created to provide an employee with simple, two-button access to the Internet to instantly pull up stock quotes, news, travel information, and other pertinent information available via the Web. Again, it�s about simplifying and enhancing the user experience, while delivering value-added tools.


Another driver we see in the enterprise is collaboration, which today comes in many forms, and often goes well beyond a basic conference call. A typical collaborative scenario in today�s business world could revolve around a review of a sales presentation that must be adjusted on-the-fly, or a budgetary meeting that relies on the participation of geographically-disperse individuals. In today�s environment, collaboration means workgroups sharing documents, artwork, data, video � in real time, from remote locations, using different devices. VoIP has been at the forefront in enabling the customer to leverage these exciting, new tools, and we�ve only just begun.

 

MESSAGING: THE NEXT WAVE
VoIP networks have provided a foundation for a whole new world in terms of messaging that addresses the ever-changing demands of today�s typical enterprise. Specifically, companies that rely on geographically disperse workgroups that need to remain in contact with one another to meet their business objectives.
Messaging, an integral part of presence management, plays a critical role in a customer�s communication processes. Consider that a workgroup may consist of colleagues located across town, vendors down the street, and clients overseas. Keeping these groups connected is a challenge to an enterprise infrastructure. Internet Messaging enables the user to go beyond the confines of the enterprise network to �see� the status of individuals and contact them immediately. Users can also integrate these contacts onto a buddy list to initiate an immediate phone call from their desktop should the status change for an individual, regardless if that person is in the office next door, or using a handheld device at a plant in China. This is a real-world example of how VoIP can demonstrably improve businesses processes.

IT�S MORE THAN �VOICE� OVER IP
As cool and advanced and exciting as these next generation of tools have become, it would be foolhardy to think that the �gee whiz� factor would be enough to nudge a CFO or CEO from being a prospect to becoming a buyer of IP technology. Voice, data, and network access have all become commodotized in recent years. Companies want to see more if they�re going to spend money on a VoIP solution. Smart customers are interested in applications � their eyes light up when a vendor can quantify how the applications add to the company�s top and bottom lines. Demonstrating this value requires the manufacturer to think outside the technology box and focus in the enterprise�s core business. Almost every business has three primary challenges: generate more revenue, manage operations more efficiently, and reduce costs. Does VoIP as a transport technology help a customer meet these three challenges? The answer is �yes.�


The power of VoIP remains in the applications. Tools like presence, collaboration, and messaging help companies to more efficiently and more easily communicate with partners, customers, and employees, regardless of location, in real time. This becomes quantifiable productivity.


Consider CRM solutions that leverage an IP network to enable an enterprise to improve customer relations, increase retention, and turn problems into sales by providing critical information, including a caller�s recent activity, problems, and resolutions to the agent before that call is even handled. Even upgrades to existing equipment that can be quickly distributed to users via the VoIP network can result in improved efficiency. Do these types of applications offer tangible proof that VoIP makes sense for an enterprise? Of course they do.

WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
As VoIP becomes more mature and gains more acceptance in the industry, we�re going to see interoperability become increasingly important. Customers repeatedly say they do not want to be beholden to a particular infrastructure, or one vendor�s platform. SIP is already gaining momentum as the first significant open protocol for VoIP. As this technology continues to mature, CPE vendors, OS manufacturers, and third-party developers will have a �field day� writing new applications that increase presence, collaboration, messaging, mobility, and a wide range of tools that challenge and tackle business needs. We�ve only scratched the surface as far as creating those business-specific applications customers crave.


The ascent of VoIP will continue because it offers so much value to the customers who must compete and manage resources day in and day out. The software and knowledge to produce the next generation of solutions are available today. It is a matter of integrating these tools into the next wave of VoIP devices. A phone is not just a phone anymore. Thanks in large part to VoIP technology, they have begun an evolutionary process, leveraging the best that IP has to offer: robust tools that gather, distribute, and share information in easy, accessible, and productive ways. Exciting times are truly ahead.


 

Jeffrey T. Ford is President of Inter-Tel Integrated Systems for Inter-Tel, Incorporated. For more information, visit www.inter-tel.com.

Balz Wyss, Ph.D., serves as Product Manager in Microsoft�s Windows CE group. For more information, visit www.microsoft.com.

 


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