To the casual observer, the enterprise communications industry must seem as competitive as professional football.
NFL coaches strive to instill in their team a fundamental philosophy that success is predicated on a number of factors, like commitment, passion, and work ethic. Business communications vendors also seek to project the impression that their ability to serve customers through advanced technology is what sets them apart from the competition. As important as it is for NFL players to embrace their teams underlying philosophy, it is equally critical that communications providers, distribution partners and even customers align themselves to ensure that new technologies and solutions meet the expectations of the enterprise.
Pro football teams and communications solutions providers also hold the belief that their most distinctive competitive advantages, whether they are game plans, go-to-market strategies, or technological developments, are completely hidden from the competitive view. NFL coaches may chose to hold closed practices and use decoys to keep information away from the opposing team. In our business, many vendors intentionally deliver misinformation in an attempt to shield their real purpose from competitors.
As much as wed hate to admit it, however, there is very little vendors dont know about each other. We all compete against each other on a daily basis, so we understand the way specific products are positioned, configured, and distributed. Its nothing that we havent seen and, frankly, this knowledge makes little difference in the selling process.
As much as strategy, road maps, and playbooks may prepare us, the game is still won and lost on the field. As Voice over IP (VoIP) gains more and more traction among end users, it will be increasingly important for providers to stick to basics and not get completely overwhelmed and sidetracked by new technologies.
Just look at the history of VoIP (define - news -alerts) over the last ten years. When it first hit the mainstream in the latter half of the 1990s, the pundits, visionaries, and even the providers, touted the technologys primary benefit as a means to eliminate toll charges by transporting voice traffic on the data network. But, as is often the case in emerging technology, real life experience was vastly different.
Though it took awhile, manufacturers eventually learned that the real benefit of VoIP communications resides in powerful applications that enable businesses to be more productive and efficient and, at the same time, reduce costs. Vendors, resellers, service providers, and systems integrators began to call signals from the same playbook. As a result, an influx of solutions such as presence management, Web conferencing, collaboration, desktop sharing, and other IP-powered tools began to permeate the market. But as technology changes, and customer requirements continue to evolve, were starting to see that this game plan will only take us so far.
Within todays communications industry, there are several issues that should have a tremendous impact on the ability of providers to satisfy customer needs.
One of the more visible opportunities is the growing recognition that industry standards will evolve into a primary technology protocol. Already, were seeing a significant deployment of 802.11 wireless infrastructure in the enterprise space, and we expect to see similar activity with SIP over the next few years.
The benefits of standards-based protocols to businesses are numerous. SIP, for example, enables multi-vendor solutions in an open environment, which by anyones measurement is a very positive step for an enterprise. Customers will have the opportunity to seamlessly integrate business-enhancing applications into their networks and, if they choose, install a variety of third-party endpoints into their infrastructure without worrying at all about the problems of interoperability and performance. SIP is about delivering choice and, we, as an industry have to come to terms that this is a paradigm we need to address. Its going to happen, and happen soon.
As technology itself becomes more innovative, more robust, and more beneficial for the customer, the battle for market share isnt going to be centered on which vendors products are more cutting edge or visionary; rather, its going to revolve around which solutions do more for the customer. It will be about getting back to basics, such as offering a realistic return on investment, delivering applications that tangibly improve business processes, and providing, at a moments notice, comprehensive and ongoing technical support and customer service.
In the ever-changing world of VoIP, we are seeing that different vendors have a variety of approaches to address their customers evolving needs. For instance, service providers and hosted vendors with the ability to bundle voice, data, video, applications, and a variety of other communications and system administration services, offer customers a single point of contact to purchase all of their communications needs. Whats more, the ability to have an outside party host, manage, and maintain the system emancipates businesses that do not have the resources to manage their own networks.
On the other side of the coin are the traditional CPE manufacturers, who have a long and proud history of developing advanced enterprise communications technology. These vendors have a strong track record in creating numerous solutions that enable businesses to run more productively and efficiently. System scalability, flexibility, and ease of management are good examples of how CPE manufacturers transfer real business perspectives into tangible solutions to address unique customer requirements more easily than service providers, who are normally equated with more commoditized offerings. CPE vendors also claim that they can deliver superior service and support, based upon the fact that they are solely focused on business communications. This contrasts with the RBOCs and other providers, who must also attend to the needs of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of consumer customers.
As VoIP continues to gain acceptance, and standards-based solutions begin to enter the market, customers ultimately will have much more choice in the devices and applications they can successfully integrate into their communications infrastructure. The role for manufacturers, service providers, and resellers becomes a lot more complicated under this scenario.
We will all be challenged to devise entirely new go-to-market strategies that will combine the functionality, features, reliability, and support typically associated with premise-based solutions. However, the growing demand by businesses to have their communications needs managed and maintained by outside resources will also have a profound effect on this new dynamic. As a result, I expect well see a sharp uptick in platforms that are sited at data centers, central offices, and resellers. All of these solutions will eventually be standards-based, and businesses will place as much or even more emphasis on selecting their SIP-based products as they do in choosing their communications platform.
So who will best serve businesses by delivering VoIP in a manner that is most beneficial to the customer? As NFL coaching great John Madden once said, it all comes down to fundamentals. Chances are it will be providers who are flexible enough to take the best elements of both CPE and service providers and create bundles that will pragmatically address customer needs.
Much like the game of professional football, the continued growth of VoIP in the marketplace all comes down to execution. As technology continues to evolve, and SIP and other standards become more prevalent, it will be the providers that can deliver the most compelling aspects of premise-based and hosted solutions, that can deliver flexibility, and that can tangibly impact business processes, that will reap the benefits of these opportunities. IT
Craig W. Rauchle is President and Chief Operating Officer of Inter-Tel, Inc. For more information, please visit the company online at www.inter-tel.com (news - alerts).
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