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November 14, 2006

CompTIA, Sphere: SMBs Important for Adoption of Converged Communications

By Mae Kowalke, TMCnet Senior Editor

Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), an organization representing business interests of the information technology industry, recently conducted its fourth annual examination of the converged communications market for small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
The specific purpose of the study was “to find out what communications applications and systems small to medium-sizes businesses are using today; and what they plan to use in the future,” CompTIA said in an announcement about the study.
A key finding of the study is that SMBs continue to be a fruitful market for companies developing converged communications products and services.
Almost a third of SMBs surveyed said they plan to upgrade or replace their phone systems during the next year; almost half cited the need for saving money through streamlined business processes as a reason for adopting modern communications technology.
The rosy outlook for converged communications was echoed, during a recent phone interview, by Todd Landry, Senior Vice President at Sphere Communications (News - Alert), a company that specializes in IP-PBX solutions.
In fact, Landry predicts that the next couple years will be a pivotal period for converged communications.
Drivers for Growth
Landry told TMCnet that, for the next couple of years, the primary driver for converged communications will simply be the adoption of IP-based systems. Most companies, he noted, have IP networks in place, but may not yet have switched their voice communications systems to those networks.
But, increasingly it is becoming necessary to make that switch in order to stay competitive—much in the same way that it is no longer possible, in the vast majority of cases, do business without both Internet access and a presence on the Web.
“If you want to compete, you’re going to have to be more effective with communications,” Landry predicted.
The competitive edge gained by adopting IP-based communications is a key selling point for SMBs, who might otherwise question why they need to upgrade a phone systems that already work even if they are a bit old-fashioned.
SMBs are more likely to upgrade, Landry added, if they get new features with the new system.
“The reason for change is that they get something that is much different,” he said. And, when it comes to IP-based communications systems, SMBs do indeed get more—much more.
Another driver for converged communications systems is the fact that they are becoming easier to install and maintain, Landry said. In fact, with the proliferation of software-based systems, it is now very easy for companies to try out different systems and choose the one that works best.
Defining Convergence (News - Alert)
Now might be a good time to step back and define what is meant here by “converged communications.”
When TMCnet posed that question to Landry, he explained that converged communications refers to a common infrastructure—the IP network—onto which applications like e-mail and instant messaging can be built.
The common infrastructure means that a single engine can run a variety of applications, representing different methods for communicating. No longer do those applications need to be disparate.
Because most people today have access to IP networks (such as the Internet), they also have access to the new, powerful communications applications that use IP—and which are relatively easy and cheap to set up and maintain.
“The right technology infrastructure has a profound impact on change,” Landry noted.
Trends Ahead
Looking ahead to the next couple years, Landry predicted that a key development for converged communications will be the disappearance of proprietary, hardware-based communications solutions. Instead, communications will be software-based.
Because communications software is very easy to run on an IP infrastructure, the natural result is that different mechanisms for communications—video, voice, e-mail, unified messaging—tend to converge.
But why should it matter whether applications are run centrally or disparately?
Landry’s answer: “The cost of running ten different applications is quite a bit higher than having one engine that provides all those services.”
Focusing on the bottom line also reveals that, not only does centralization make things cheaper and easier, but communications get more efficient as well.
For example, when communications engines and presence engines are combined, it becomes possible to correlate the status of one user with that of another. And when that happens, the communications engine can look at the presence information and make decisions for the user about how to leverage different communications capabilities.
Landry stressed that this centralization, which add more power to the individual elements involved, is not just about the convergence of functions but also about the convergence of applications.
To illustrate this point, Landry pointed out that a business may use many different applications, including a CRM tool, a Web browser, an e-mail client, an accounting package, and an HR system. Convergence means that all those applications can work together, and the result is that convergence is about much, much more than just telephony.
“The telecom industry is going to become more business application savvy,” Landry predicted.
More Than Just an IP Phone
To illustrate the fact that convergence is about more than just telephony, Landry talked in length about phones and how people use them at work.
“Most IP phones today are doing their best to emulate old PBXs,” he noted. That will change, he predicts, as phone change into secondary, always-on communications devices.
For example, take the average desktop phone. Typically, it has a small screen on it that displays the date and time. Landry pointed out that the screen could be used to display other information, too—like local weather forecasts and traffic data. The phone could even be programmed to display the info at certain times of day.
The desktop phone screen also could be used to display an alert about an upcoming meeting, Landry suggested. Or, it could alert a teacher in a classroom to an urgent weather front that requires moving the students to another location.
People are already accustomed to looking at their desktop phones to check for messages, so this type of information would be frequently accessed, he pointed out.
But phones are about more than just the device that sits on a desktop. Mobile telephony, Landry noted, is a hot area in the converged communications industry.
“More and more people use mobile devices,” he noted. “Arguably, you might ask yourself why you need a phone on your desk.”
Indeed, why have a desk phone at all, if it is possible to port around a communications device all the time, anywhere? Landry said that, although mobile phones have potential to transform business further, currently they often aren’t integrated all that well with in-house systems. He predicted that such convergence will improve as time goes on. (Think dual-mode phones that can access both WiFi and cellular networks.)
“There are going to be dual-mode phones,” Landry told TMCnet. “But it will take a little while for them to evolve and become cost-effective for business.”
Whether on a mobile phone or a desktop phone, the convergence of communications makes it possible to access more powerful capabilities (such as presence management)—with the result that knowledge is streamlined and people can communicate more efficiently.
What SMBs Want
For smaller companies, some of the most straightforward advantages of an IP-based communications system may be the most profound. Presence management is a good example, Landry told TMCnet.
Older phone systems, he explained, did not do a very good job of connecting employees at different sites. Because the system at one location had no way to define the availability of a person at another location—beyond whether or not he/she was on the phone—the result often was a frustrating game of voicemail tag.
With an IP-based system, on the other hand, it is possible to simply look at a screen and see if the person you need to reach is on the phone or not. If he or she is on the phone, you might choose to send a text message instead. This is much more efficient than the old way, Landry noted.
This example, Landry told TMCnet, illustrates the fact that for most SMBs, the main requirement for a new system is that it does something more than simply make phone calls.
Overcoming the Hurdles
Converged communications has a bright future in the SMB market, Landry said. Currently the biggest hurdle barring more widespread adoption is simply that SMBs have to decide a wide array of mixed messages from vendors.
The reason for that, he explained, is the industry currently is in flux, switching from a hardware-based model to a software-based one. The resulting flood of products and services means there is a lot of information, often conflicting, for users to wade through.
Landry noted that in some cases, this dynamic can slow or even stall a market for a time.
Yet Landry isn’t worried; he said the market for converged communications solutions is sorting itself out, as evidenced by the fact that even Microsoft (News - Alert) is now getting involved. Its also a positive sign that companies like Cisco are taking an open-systems approach.
“We're seeing that the software based systems are the ones that are bubbling to the top,” he reiterated.
Mae Kowalke previously wrote for Cleveland Magazine in Ohio and The Burlington Free Press in Vermont. To see more of her articles, please visit Mae Kowalke’s columnist page. Also check out her Wireless Mobility blog.

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