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Feature Article
February 2004

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Instant Conferencing: Ready. Steady. Go!


Next-Generation Conferencing: Catching A Wave


IP telephony is still the buzz these days, although much of the buzz has shifted from the potential benefits of toll bypass to the new economy where enterprise efficiency and enhanced functionality are the big payoffs. 2004 is likely to be a turning point for the IP telephony business, as the economics of IP become increasingly cost-competitive against those of the entrenched TDM competition in a multitude of areas. However, consumer and enterprise readers would be well-advised to view IP telephony as but the first wave of innovation to ride the IP tsunami. In fact, communications professionals should be prepared to watch several technology fronts as they form a perfect storm driving voice, video, and data communications in ways we have only begun to understand.

IP telephony is in fact just the first manifestation of an evolution in the communications market. The starting point is today�s traditional, silo-like communications configuration with which most people are well familiar -- voice, video, and data devices carry separate media riding on separate networks -- PSTN for voice, ISDN for video, and IP or other packet technologies for data. This structure of enterprise conferencing has followed that of its communications foundation. In fact, voice, video, and data conferencing are often purchased by separate departments from separate vendors and service providers, further highlighting the disconnect between them.

As we look towards 2004, we are entering the second phase of the evolution: Network convergence. The mantra here is �one network for voice, video, and data;� one network to design, deploy, manage, and maintain. Here is where IP telephony in its present incarnation shines. Customers are looking to reduce costs, increase control and security, and find tools to help workers communicate better while in the office or on the road. For many, especially greenfield installations, IP telephony fits the bill. IP telephony is also making inroads into customer call and support centers where it is viewed as an important technology to drive sales revenues and lower costs through distributed centers.

Network convergence is also an important foundation of next-generation conferencing. Like the traditional communications world, the established world of conferencing has also been silo-like with videoconferencing typically an island in the enterprise sea of communications tools. Limited by ISDN�s cost, complexity, unreliability, and difficulty of deploying to all conference rooms and desktops, videoconferencing has remained a niche in the enterprise landscape. But all that is changing as videoconferencing moves to IP networks. Videoconferencing systems today running on IP provide lower costs (no ISDN interface and no ISDN bills), higher network reliability, and higher audio and video quality because IP offers higher bandwidth at lower costs than is possible with ISDN. In addition, IP runs everywhere, to virtually every enterprise conference room and desktop, taking video to much broader deployment possibilities.

While IP videoconferencing is perhaps the most visible aspect of next-generation conferencing, the fastest growing segment of the market today is Web conferencing -- a revised form of data conferencing that enables users with a Web browser to see remote presentations, share applications, and attend interactive meetings. Web conferencing is exclusively an IP-based phenomenon, and its rapid adoption is already causing many IP telephony vendors to pause in order to figure out how to incorporate this functionality into their product lines.

Conferencing in the current converged networks phase is being driven by two important non-conferencing technologies. The first is networks. Running voice and video over packet networks requires a network that is designed to provide the unique performance parameters that these real-time communications media require. IP telephony vendors and many end users are already familiar with the bandwidth, latency, and other quality of service (QoS) issues that arise when real-time data has to co-exist on a converged network with bursty data traffic. At the present time, bandwidth is becoming plentiful and ever lower in cost, and QoS protocols are being introduced by all the major equipment vendors. The future will require QoS from the LAN to the WAN and from WAN to WAN as traffic crosses between different network provider clouds. Without this, converged voice and video traffic will be constrained to virtual private networks and will not enable inter-company communications unless gateways to the PSTN are used, a less than optimum solution.

The second (and very different) technology impacting the future of conferencing is the transition taking place in user interfaces. Many readers today are familiar with Instant Messaging (IM), popularized by AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft. IM is a text chat communications tool that is based on the important concept of Presence. With Presence (an IP-based, server-based application) users can see which of their �buddies� is on-line or logged in, and who is data-enabled, voice-enabled, and/or video-enabled. A simple click then launches a voice, video, or Web conference. No longer do users have to master different software tools; a Presence engine becomes the interface to a wide variety of easy-to-use IP conferencing applications. The converged network enables the different media to co-exist; it also enables a user to start an IM session, then escalate to voice and video as the need arises.

All of these trends are coming together today as vendors and service providers deploy rich media conferencing portals that give users a single Web site to schedule, launch, and control calls, conferences, meetings, and presentations. Many of the solutions are using SIP and SIMPLE standards to hook into third-party Presence engines that provide the security and other enhancements that enterprise workers demand. Intelligent Presence engines see who is on a cell phone, or PC, or videoconferencing system and make the appropriate call at the right time, enabling multimodal meetings across a wide variety of devices.

The third phase of the evolution will see the convergence of voice, video, and Web conferencing with higher level applications. This is really the long-term destination of the IP telephony movement and also where the IP infrastructure investment really begins to pay off. When managers can launch audio, video, and Web calls seamlessly from within their ERP, CRM, sales support, CAD/CAM, data analysis, and office automation programs, then the true efficiency benefits of IP telephony will be realized -- better decision making, shorter development times, improved customer support, and easier-to-use applications.

The third phase of the IP conferencing evolution will require the active involvement of conferencing and higher level application developers; it will also stretch the service provider community. For conferencing to fulfill its potential end users will need a whole range of services spanning the divide between high-touch and unassisted calls as well as service provider companies that can support both the ASP and managed services models of service delivery.

With the intersection of IP, rich media and the latest advances in conferencing technology, it�s all about to pay off. �Next-generation conferencing� will enable anyone to not only attend a meeting or event from any device -- cell phone, wireless PDA, computer, videoconferencing system, IP phone, or PSTN handset -- affordably and without a requiring a dedicated IT guru as a traveling companion, it will make all the current applications much richer and easier to use. c

Andrew W. Davis is Managing Partner at Wainhouse Research. He is also the principal editor of the Wainhouse Research Bulletin. Wainhouse Research is an independent market research firm that focuses on critical issues in rich media communications, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and streaming media.

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Instant Conferencing: Ready. Steady. Go!


The growing dependency on computers, wireless devices, Instant Messaging (IM), e-mail, and the Internet, etc., is creating a sea change in how people communicate and interact. And more innovation is on the way as converged voice, video, and data technologies are gaining momentum and bringing a greater sense of immediacy and real time control to the way we communicate.

One of the biggest new advances today is the widespread use and acceptance of IM. Initially adopted by consumers for quick text chats, IM quickly found its way into the enterprise, because it�s easy to use and spontaneous. Today, this personal communication tool is being used by about 65 million workers with 350 million expected to join in by the end of 2005, according to IDC. Industry analysts are saying the widespread adoption of consumer-based IM within the enterprise is the first time an �at home� technology is pushing companies to adopt and incorporate standards for IM into their IT plans. The Yankee Group is even reporting that 35 percent of telecommunications companies with more than 100 employees are now using IM for customer service. In financial services and retail, the numbers are 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

The value of IM is in its underlying technology: presence awareness, which lets users see whether others are online and if they are available. Businesses are finding IM to be effective, valuable, and an easy way to connect -- in much the same way they found audio conferencing to be a great alternative to travel. Ultimately, presence technology will find its way into other applications as well, but today, IM is the first of a revolution of products and applications that use presence technology.

How is IM related to audio conferencing?
Recent studies have shown that 60 percent of IM sessions with more than five messages result in a telephone call. Often that call drives the need to get a group of people on the phone for a conference call. While IM is making dramatic new inroads within corporate America, audio conferencing, with its ubiquitous status (87 percent of business professionals use it), is poised to be among the newest applications that converge with IM to create a new means of collaboration: Instant Conferencing.

It wasn�t too long ago when we all thought that reservationless conferencing was the latest advance in conferencing. What could be easier than having an 800 number and personalized PIN that gave you access to a virtual 24x7 conference room? Though reservationless conferencing is easy to use and always available, it is still a scheduled conference. Workers who use it regularly still invite people to participate in a call -- it�s easy -- but not spontaneous like Instant Conferencing.

What is Instant Conferencing?
Instant Conferencing is a new application that lets you initiate a two- or multi-party conference call from an IM session so you can take advantage of the spontaneous, interactive and on-the-fly nature of IM. Instant Conferencing facilitates this through the click-to-connect technology so that talking to a group is only a mouse click away and a readily available feature from an IM buddy list. Utilizing the underlying presence awareness of IM, Instant Conferencing allows the user to �see� whether someone is online by simply looking at their IM interface because an icon indicates active or inactive status. Once it is possible to determine whether someone is available, getting a group of people on an Instant Conference from an IM session is a natural progression that enables workers to be more productive and efficient. By clicking on a name icon from an IM buddy list, any number of people can be added to the telephone to create an instant audio conference call. Instant Conferencing also allows a user to �select� the phone that will be called, so that a cell-phone would be called if the person is out of the office.

Why is Instant Conferencing the �Next Big Advance� in Conferencing?
Most people work in groups of more than two people, and they like to talk. Phone calls and even IM provide a closer approximation to the give and take in a face-to-face meeting � but only for two people. With more people working in virtual groups or working from home, Instant Conferencing has the feel of camaraderie and collaboration. Instant Conferencing adds additional participations to the conversation, which enhances productivity just by having more �workers� present. An Instant Conference allows interaction with multiple people over multiple services simultaneously rather than one at a time. It also improves bottom line productivity because it allows corporations to leverage their human capital at a much faster rate. Both factors make Instant Conferencing irresistible as an environment in which to provide users access to new advanced services.

The benefits of Instant Conferencing are compelling:
� Facilitates spontaneous worker interaction;
� Increases responsiveness to critical events;
� Combines messaging, calling, and conferences in a seamless integrated interface;
� Easy to use, ad hoc with a feeling that a work group is close at hand.

Additionally, for busy users, Instant Conferencing provide instant communications and combines messaging, calling, conferencing, and Web presentations in a seamless integrated interface that will become the new state-of-the-art.

Instant Conferencing is the next step that is bringing the ubiquity of conferencing into the realm of real-time communication. Coupled with the easy-to-use IM functions that are taking hold in the enterprise, Instant Conferencing is being heralded as the fastest and easiest way to get a group of people on the phone.

Where audio conferencing was once thought of as a mature industry, the development of Instant Conferencing is igniting growth of an entirely new segment of the real-time communications industry. Because of these advances, conferencing service providers should be well positioned to benefit from the new converged applications like Instant Conferencing that are being based on presence technology.

Greg Miller is Vice President, Product Marketing, BT Conferencing, Inc. BT Conferencing is a leading business in the area of conferencing solutions. Part of BT, one of the world�s leading providers of telecommunications services, BT Conferencing is also a global business, working with partners across the world to provide local conferencing services.


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