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More Than Just Multimedia -- The Modalities of Converged IP Communication
[June 05, 2006]

More Than Just Multimedia -- The Modalities of Converged IP Communication

With the migration of telephony to IP, business communications are converging at all levels:
  • Network transport

  • Communication and business process application servers

  • Endpoint application software clients

  • Endpoint device interfaces
The technology silos that separated different media of person-to-person contacts are merging, so that users can exploit any and all forms of communication as circumstances and needs dictate. That has always been the holy grail of unified communications technologies, to provide greater user flexibility, efficiencies, and productivity in business operations.

The proprietary telephony industry is going through the disruptive pain of changing its technologies to converge voice communications with standards-based information and text communication software that is exploiting the power and flexibility of Internet and IP networking. Not only are there new players in the IP telephony game, but also the big information application providers like IBM (News - Alert) and Microsoft (News - Alert) are now able to play the telephone game.

Compatibility and interoperability is good, but doesn’t tell us where business communications convergence is taking the end users.
Communication Modalities
While some people initially only looked at the convergence and interoperability of the media of person-to-person communications, i.e., text vs. voice vs. video, it was obvious that there were other usage parameters for such communications, including:
  • Real-time contacts vs. asynchronous messaging

  • Business contacts vs. personal/consumer contacts

  • Wired vs. wireless device connectivity

  • Handheld vs. desktop device form factors

  • Enterprise-owned technology vs. hosted services vs. public services
I consider all of these as “modalities” of communication that can impact the ability for people to communicate with each other anywhere and any time. Because IP communications, including VoIP and IP telephony, are moving toward still-evolving standards-based SIP, we will be able to bridge any kind of endpoint and contact modality across different networks and across enterprise systems.
Most importantly, SIP-enabled, federated presence management, combined with multi-modal devices, will enable individual users to intelligently, efficiently, and dynamically control their converged communication activities to fit the changing priorities of their job and personal responsibilities to others. So, how do we describe such new flexibility and how will we use it effectively?  
Converging Messaging, Calls, and Conferencing  - Crossmodal and Transmodal Communications
Because we are entering a new world of communications convergence that will increasingly exploit wireless mobility and multimodal devices, we not only need to enable individual users to independently choose the modality of contact most appropriate for their individual needs, but also consider the flexibility of dynamically changing between communication modalities during the course of the contact. 
The two key multimodal usage options are described below.
Crossmodal Communication
This enables one party to communicate in one medium or modality with a second party who uses another modality that is appropriate for their environment or the device they happen to have.
Examples include message conversion between text and voice, one party using a real-time speech interface, while the other uses a real-time text interface (IM), or one party on video, but the other party only on a voice connection. 
Transmodal Communication
In this case, communicating parties want to seamlessly “escalate” their initial mode of contact to one that is more real-time or to expand the contact group. Examples include moving from email or voice mail to Instant Messaging or to a voice or video connection, without losing the context of the current contact. In legacy voice mail systems, this feature was called “call return.”
This capability can also include dynamically expanding the current contact connection to other users for “instant multi-party conferencing,” as well as enabling crossmodal participation as mentioned above.
Transmodal capabilities will be particularly important for time-sensitive group communications in organizations, especially as wireless mobility and IP networking accelerates the “virtual” enterprise and teleworking. It will also be become very useful for supporting the increasing use of Web self-service and telephone-oriented voice response applications for enterprise customers that will always require some form of live assistance.
For more thoughts on transmodal communications, read my original article on the subject.
Moving Multimodal IP Communications To The Users – SIP Endpoints
While the initial buzz of VoIP and IP telephony was focused on migrating to the network infrastructure for reducing costs, the market push has shifted to communication applications and their integration with business process. However, the flexibility and efficiencies of multimodal communications will not be fully realized until end users get their hands on communication devices that exploit the interoperability of the evolving Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert) (SIP) standard.
It is really not enough to have an “all-in-one” device that supports text and voice communications as silos with separate connections, functions, and addressing. Convergence at the end user level, across modalities, is what will make IP communications fly, and that is where converged, handheld and desktop SIP-based endpoint devices come into play.
Device and modality independence will be the standard for business communications of the future, enterprise organizations will be challenged to support and manage such flexibility, particularly for wireless, handheld devices. The paradigm of the standardized wired desktop is transitioning to the software-based, personalized, job-oriented device that will work with any communication application, over all networks, and with any other user device, in any modality.     
Putting It All Together
Converged communications will involve a lot of different software technologies from different developers that will inter-work on standards-based platforms and devices.
Such technologies will have to be available as both enterprise-owned applications well as through hosted services, in order for the vision of universal converged communications to be realized. The challenge for enterprise organizations is to find the right providers that will facilitate putting all the pieces together in any combination required at the moment for different groups of users and business applications.
Right now, the technology industry is readjusting itself to provide business communications as mobile, software-based, services to replace the traditional premise-based wired equipment  (CPE) of traditional enterprise telephony, as well as the network infrastructure of the legacy PSTN. The battle for control over such software and provisioning of multimodal endpoint devices is starting to heat up and it remains to be seen what will happen to business “partnerships” being forged today in the name of convergence.
In the meantime, migration is going to be a slow and cautious journey for most enterprise organizations, as the technologies evolve and as consumers become more mobile and multimodal through IP communications. Don’t expect too many “best practices” soon, since there is a lot of learning to be done at the end user and business application levels. This is making the case for “hosted” and managed services very strong for migration.
What Do You Think? 
Who will be supplying new, multi-modal devices to the enterprise? What controls will the enterprise have over such devices? What will enterprise IT responsibilities be like for deploying new hosted and managed communication services? How will traditional “CPE” change, as telephony applications become open software and endpoint device independent?
How will IT determine traffic capacity requirements for crossmodal and transmodal activities? Who will be the “one-stop-shop” for converged enterprise communications? What will be key to a “graceful” enterprise migration to converged communications?
Who or what will drive enterprise migration to converged communications the most? Mobility?  What changes will converged communications and multimodal devices require for enterprise end users in terms of enterprise usage policies, device support, and user training? How will the enterprise deal consistently with multimodal customers? Who in the enterprise and how will they provide the requirements and justifications for multimodal communications?
While IP telephony and VoIP will make it easier and cheaper to handle calls from customers, I put the spotlight in this exclusive article on the most important function that IVR technology brings to all customer telephone contacts – “intelligent” call routing.
Often perceived as just a means of automating specific business process tasks though self-service applications over the phone, using IVR technologies to find out why the customer is calling is really the first critical step to more efficient caller care and customer satisfaction.    
Earlier, I wrote an article that “takes it from the top” and identifies the five main management reasons for an enterprise to move their call center operations to a multi-channel IP telecommunications infrastructure. Once you have aligned such business priorities properly, you can move on to the new implementation choices you now have in the “how to” phase for moving forward intelligently and cost efficiently.
Art Rosenberg is a veteran of the computer and communications industry and formed The Unified-View to provide strategic consulting to technology and service providers, as well as to enterprise organizations, in migrating towards converged wired and wireless unified communications.

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