ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

Feature Article
October 2003

Presence-Enabled Applications Kick Off A Communications Revolution


Few computer-age technologies have languished in the early-adopter phase as long as VoIP. At the end of 2002, Forrester Research estimated that only 11 percent of North American firms had completed an initial IP telephony deployment, and concluded, �enterprise IP telephony still lacks a compelling driver.�

That driver is presence-based applications, which are about to push convergence into the mainstream.

When all modes of business communication are reduced to bits in IP packets and made available to an application that can also sense the presence state of potential participants, real-time collaboration becomes a reality. People can gather in virtual meetings on demand, with the richness of the communication automatically tailored to the capabilities of the connection currently available to each.

First-generation VoIP focused on streamlining operations to reduce communications costs. Redundant network facilities and staffs could be consolidated, least-cost routing allowed long-distance voice traffic to ride on data backbones essentially for free, and simplified voice administration and management eliminated the need for expensive service contracts. These are bottom-line benefits that accrue primarily to the IT staff, and have to be weighed against the increased risk of deploying a new technology. They do not bring any tangible new benefits to the end-user.

VoIP vendors continue to increase the reliability of products and the efficiencies they bring to the convergence equation, but these efforts are being offset by every additional downtick in the long-distance rates of existing carrier networks. Costs can never be brought down to zero, and even if they could, they represent a finite quantity in the business equation.

Second-generation VoIP is much more compelling, because it is being driven by innovative applications aimed at the business people. These technologies deliver top-line returns by helping workers and enterprise knowledge experts to efficiently collaborate, resolve problems, rapidly develop more business solutions, and generate more revenue. Enterprise resource planning, sales force automation, and other data-centric collaborative applications have missed the mark because they don�t integrate voice -- by far the preferred communication mode of the front-line warriors who grow a company�s business.

Unlike IT cost savings, potential revenue growth is not finite. VoIP is gathering steam not only because of its cost-saving, network-level efficiencies that can enable a self-funded migration to a converged environment, but mainly because it is enabling the spawning of a whole new class of business applications.

For example, consider what converged applications can bring to the typical customer-service scenario.

A customer calls in with a complaint, and also e-mails a fault report that provides additional details. After promising to get back to the customer by the end of the day, the customer-service contact combines the two communications into a voice-annotated document and breaks the problem down into pieces that can be delegated to a group of specialists.

The application uses presence intelligence and skills-based routing to find available individuals and to rapidly enable the formation of a virtual workgroup. These individuals in turn consult with internal and external people and resources, using shared workspaces -- electronic white boards -- to come up with proposals for resolving the problem.

All of these separate efforts are consolidated into a single compound document containing voice input, white-board images, written documents and other multimedia input. This document comprises a full analysis of the customer�s problem as well as the recommended resolution, the application gives it a �complete� status and alerts the customer-service contact that it is available. The customer-service contact reviews the document and responds back to the customer with the proposed solution.

The communications and presence intelligence that enables this quick and concerted response is being facilitated by Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). However, such applications will be a long time in coming if developers have to use SIP in its native form, because it forces them to deal with the minutiae of every individual SIP session.

Each function invoked by the application can actually involve many constituent SIP messages. These messages deal with the progress of the SIP session, as well as including error messages about any failures. The developer�s program must address all potential failure cases, and respond correctly to all SIP messages being sent by other user devices or endpoints. To build or accommodate all these messages individually, the developer must have a thorough understanding of all the different devices and media types and their associated peculiarities.

It is easy to see that application developers working with native SIP would quickly get bogged down in all of the details and lose sight of the real business problem to be solved. The cost of developing SIP-enabled applications would spiral out of control and become prohibitive.

The situation is analogous to the early days of the Web, when pages had to be built laboriously with raw HTML coding and CGI scripting. The rich, multimedia Web environment we see today is a product of higher-level tools that generate the underlying code automatically, allowing the designer to focus instead on the program�s functionality and content.

Similarly, voice and data convergence in call centers was brought about by using the CSTA protocol to control the various call states. CSTA�s ASN.1 binary encoded scheme was somewhat complex to use, so the benefits of convergence rarely spread beyond the realm of developers creating high-value call center applications.

However, CSTA�s original protocol encoding has been complemented by the emergence of a much higher-level CSTA-XML schema. There are many Web services developers familiar with XML who can now leverage CSTA-XML to control sessions at a higher level, because the CSTA-XML abstraction layer shields the developer from the SIP and device primitives used in the physical environment.

The impact is enormous, because the explosion of Web services has created a large pool of XML developers who can now also leverage their XML skills to add real-time communications capabilities to their applications.

Sending voice over IP networks more and more cheaply and reliably simply isn�t going to cause the long-awaited mass migration to convergence. This is especially true in the wake of Y2K-related upgrades that breathed fresh life into the installed base of traditional PBX equipment. Forrester estimates that fewer than 10 percent of the installed base of enterprise-class PBX systems in the United States will need an overhaul before 2005. Writing off such non-depreciated assets in the interim could cancel out a lot of the bottom-line benefits derived from first-generation VoIP.

However, second-generation VoIP presents businesses with an entirely new equation. It is a more highly evolved technology form distinguished by presence intelligence, and it is sparking the first true revolution in business communication since the invention of the telephone. When callers and applications are presence enabled and know who is available and by what media type or types, real-time contact still isn�t ensured, of course. But the probability of reaching the right person -- rather than getting shunted off to voice mail -- is greatly increased.

And increased contact rates are only part of the SIP story. The communications in these virtual meetings of two or more people don�t need to be reduced to the lowest common denominator, which could be as bare as the simple text-based instant messaging being used by someone joining the conversation via a wireless handheld device. Instead convergence enables each participant�s individual communication channel to be exploited to its fullest capabilities.

The result is much richer and increasingly multimedia content that leverages investments in data resources and maximizes the communication experience.
As Forrester puts it, imagine the benefit of being able to make real-time queries to business-critical CRM (customer relationship management), SCM (supply chain management) or ERP (enterprise resource planning) applications during a phone call. The conversing parties are immediately looking at identical business data, and don�t have to expend time and effort on context setting. Conversation content can be enhanced, offering more and more of the benefits of face-to-face meetings, but without all the costs of bringing people together physically.

Enabling existing data applications with SIP, even with the help of higher-level development tools, still seems like a mammoth task. However, Forrester expects the use of Web services to decimate application-integration costs. Once standard Web-service interfaces are embedded into applications and voice-system clients and servers, Web services can serve as the glue that ties everything -- old and new -- together.

Meanwhile, new presence-aware applications have moved far beyond the �slideware� stage. They are already being demonstrated, and some real-world implementations are underway. While the top-line returns of convergence are a lot harder to quantify than cost savings, they will soon be apparent, and they give businesses a real reason to migrate to VoIP.

Peter Kozdon Ph.D. is director of product management at Siemens Information and Communication Networks Inc. He has worked in the communications field for the past 25 years including the last 8 years focusing on voice over IP. Kozdon is currently responsible for the evolution of Siemens OpenScape products.

[ Return To The October 2003 Table Of Contents ]

Today @ TMC
Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas