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Industry Insight
December 2003


Jim Machi

The Last Word

BY JIM MACHI


Group Publisher Rich Tehrani�s column in the inaugural issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY outlined the mission for this magazine with the always-yellow cover. It would focus exclusively on �Internet telephony and the related convergence of voice, video, fax, and data.� And it has always been true to that convergence theme.

This month I wind down my five years of writing Industry Insight (yes, this is my last regular column). As I come to this crossroads, I find myself thinking more about convergence.

Interestingly, after five years, I feel like I�m actually hearing more about convergence these days than I was back in 1998. But what is convergence really? Does it mean the same thing now that it did then? Since we�re still talking about it, are we making any progress?

Good questions all. In 1998, the reality of convergence simply meant a PSTN-to-IP gateway. There were still two different kinds of networks, but convergence provided a way to convert traditional telephony traffic to IP packets and vice versa, interconnecting those networks and allowing them to trade data. So the killer convergence application -- rate arbitrage -- was born. But that killer app had an Achilles heel: if traditional telephony rates came down, its appeal would diminish. And this is exactly what has happened.

Yet Internet telephony and convergence are still here. Why? Because the definition of convergence morphed and grew. Convergence using a gateway was just the beginning. The original definition was just about connection convergence, but soon convergence became about application convergence that grew out of the connection convergence. That is, because of converged networks (even if, back then, a gateway was the connection mechanism) and their united infrastructure, exciting new applications became possible.
 
Connection convergence enabled the birth of interesting new applications. Once an enterprise (including its phone system) is running on an IP network, then the phone system, e-mail, application server, and Web server are all on the same network. The systems can fairly easily talk to each other and exchange data. This led to new and exciting converged applications like communications Web services apps that converged the Web and voice portals into a unified application, and voice over IP-over-VPN applications that allowed true home offices to flourish � enabling home-based telecommuters to enjoy the same four-digit dialing and conference calling as their on-site counterparts.

And so today, application convergence makes the idea of convergence still interesting and relevant. This is the true measure of convergence and why it is ultimately so powerful. It enables new offerings that deliver flexibility, time-to-market advantages, and more economy. And that�s why people are deploying these converged applications.

What I have described so far applies mostly to the wireline market segment and applications. But today, much of the IP telephony hype is about wireless. In the wireless market segment, today�s action is about connection convergence. Wi-Fi and WiMax are IP connection points. This is probably why I�m hearing �convergence� more and more. Even many of my most recent columns have touched on this in some way. Wireless connection convergence is sort of a rerun of the wireline connection convergence. Once IP gets into the wireless sphere, then application convergence will undoubtedly be coming. But we�ll still find ourselves talking about convergence.

And this brings me to my final point. Are we making progress toward convergence? If we really were truly converged, we probably wouldn�t be using the word anymore -- things would just...be that way. Everything would be interoperable on the same kind of network. So once we get the wireless applications converged on an IP network, then we will be truly converged and won�t need to say the word anymore, right? Possibly, but I doubt it. I�m sure by then someone will come up with something new that will challenge the existing infrastructure. And, once more, we will need to converge.

So maybe Rich had it right -- voice, video, fax, and data. Is it generic enough to live forever? I think so, since we�ll never be truly converged on anything in this industry. Even in these times of reduced CapEx spending, we must continue to respond to the market forces shaped by the usage patterns of real people. Usage patterns show more broadband use, more Internet use, and increased mobility patterns. Evolution of both enterprise and public network solutions will continue, with convergence as the big driver. (Let�s not overuse the word, though -- I still want it to mean something.)

Though my regular column may be missing in future issues, you may actually find other articles from me from time to time. I want to thank Rich and Editorial Director Greg Galitzine for giving me the opportunity to write this wide-ranging Industry Insight column for five years. I�d also like to thank the readers who�ve always been there, putting up with my ramblings about the Giants and Mets, sending in questions, and engaging me in conversations at tradeshows and the like. I�ll see you around.

Jim Machi is director, Product Management for the Network Processing Division of the Intel Communications Group. Intel, the world�s largest chipmaker, is also a leading manufacturer of computer, networking, and communications products. For more information, visit www.intel.com.

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