TMCnet News

"The Chicken or the Egg": Will Mobile, Multi-modal Telephone Devices Drive Communications Convergence in 2006?
[January 06, 2006]

"The Chicken or the Egg": Will Mobile, Multi-modal Telephone Devices Drive Communications Convergence in 2006?

Art Rosenberg, The Unified-View
2005 was notable for the business telecommunications industry because IP telephone line shipments crossed the 50% mark, compared to traditional TDM shipments. This included both pure Greenfield IP-PBX installations as well as hybrid upgrades. For the most part, however, IP desktop station sets looked much like traditional digital phones, with a touchtone keypad, some special buttons, and a relatively small screen display. The main enterprise benefits of IP telephony were focused on infrastructure and support cost efficiencies, with new user application benefits coming from PC-dependent integrations and "softphone" implementations.

However, as noted industry analyst Allan Sulkin reports in his BCR article "IP Telephones Come of Age," browser-based, "always-on" screen phones are starting to selectively displace the need for a traditional PC to support business application interfaces. He cites IP phone desktop products from providers like Alcatel, Cisco, Inter-Tel, and Mitel that integrate with business application software servers and software clients to replace the need for a full-blown PC at locations that don't really need them. From a business communications perspective, especially as text messaging usage including information exchange increases, having a converged, multi-modal device interface will make for greater end user accessibility, flexibility and efficiency (aka "productivity"). But, who says that the general-purpose PC is the only way to make this happen?    

Desktop Phones Don't Fight PCs - Sometimes They Can Replace Them!
Let's face it! Speech is ideal for voice/video conversations and practical for application UIs (user interfaces) when the user has to be hands-free and eyes-free, i.e., for mobile environments. However, speech is NOT an efficient interface for making prompted menu choices, reviewing information, or multi-tasking, so the essence of unified communications for the user is to converge user interfaces at the device level.
As I have frequently mentioned in the past, multi-modal contacts not only allow the choice of person-to-person communications to range between speech and text, but also between real-time contacts and asynchronous messaging. Beyond offering that kind of choice, multi-modal devices also enable what I call "transmodal communication," which means shifting dynamically and seamlessly from one modality to another, without switching devices, nor even disconnecting from the network service. Such flexibility will be useful for both wired desktops as well as mobile wireless devices, making for greater location-independent accessibility. So, the first practical step for converged communications from the user's perspective will take place at the interface level of communication devices/appliances. 
Device-independent, Proactive "Application Messaging" 
What makes this interface convergence at the device level even more useful than simply expanding the flexibility of person-to-person contacts is that business process applications can also proactively initiate the delivery of information to specific recipients, anywhere and any way they are accessible. I have called this capability "application messaging," because business processes won't have big conversations with people, but they do have a need for timely delivery of informational messages ("alerts," "notifications"). "Unified messaging" capabilities that enable text information to be delivered visually or through speech, coupled with SIP-based presence and availability management, call center-like "skills-based routing," and flexible notification options, make automated information delivery (familiarly known as "screen pops") a practical requirement for business process improvement for both enterprise personnel and customer contacts. 
What will be key to the success of information delivery from business applications is the fact that they must be able to deliver device-independent information. This won't be hard if application information sticks to basic text which can always be converted to speech if necessary; if more complex information is required, e.g., pictures or video, then device dependency and circumstances become an issue that the recipient will have to resolve, after being notified. Needless to say, "application messaging" will exploit multi-modal handheld mobile devices for anywhere, anytime, anyhow access and the fact that the increased flexibility of such devices will increase the timeliness and responsiveness of such user contacts. 
"Application phones" Instead of a PC Softphone?
Although end user surveys always seem to show that business users seem to like the traditional desktop telephone with buttons, the desktop phone is getting competition from both the PC-based softphone with a hard handset, as well as from handheld devices like cell phones and "smartphones." Every employee with a desk, regardless of where that desk was located, used to present a requirement for real-time voice contact via a phone. Today that requirement has extended to text messaging communications via email and Instant Messaging.  So, the PC-based softphone appeared to be a logical solution for converging communications within the enterprise, where the reliability of legacy station sets was augmented by the interface flexibility of the multi-modal PC.
Providing a general-purpose PC to all employees as a "softphone" for multi-modal person-to-person communications may not always be necessary in the future, especially when the display requirements for call management, text messaging and customized business process information are limited for particular kinds of job responsibilities. "Verticalized" IP desktop and handheld display phones can help simplify any "always on" personal contact and information delivery needs for different types of job responsibilities in vertical markets, particularly for mobile usage.   
The hospitality industry is an ideal target for such an approach, as witness Avaya's development of an IP-based  "Concierge" phone for the new Wynn hotel in Las Vegas in early 2005. Although the first version was limited, the concept is valid for hotel guests who don't have a laptop and can use the screen phone for personalized, "always-on," visual information retrieval and/or delivery from hotel-sponsored service applications. Because hotel guests are, by definition, very mobile, integrating such wired room communication amenities with handheld devices and Wi-Fi information and messaging services will be a logical next step.
When A Phone Line Is Not Personal
In many operational environments, including home residences, communication mobility is also provided by strategically located wired extensions; for business premises, local extensions or information "kiosks" that include voice access to live assistance, come into play. This is particularly practical in health care, retail environments, and, of course, any public venues where visitors need to communicate on site. Before the growth in personal cell phones, the public payphone was the practical way to make a phone call when on the go, and these were big moneymakers.
Because new screen-based, keyboard enabled IP phones can handle multi-modal contacts with people, as well as support information access, they make convenient and flexible devices for transient usage in public campus areas, meeting rooms, temporary offices, and specialized work areas. No longer is the desktop telephone needed just to make or receive a phone call, but to initiate, retrieve, and respond to text and voice messages. In other words these IP screen/keyboard phones will make ideal replacements for the phones provided to visitors who don't have their own wireless handheld device or laptop. As a bonus, customized information access can be provided by the hosting venue, e.g., a convention, resort, or governmental site.
The Death of the TUI?
As users move to personalized, multi-modal phones that can exploit online address books for initiating multi-modal contacts, the importance of the traditional touchtone keypad is being displaced by alphanumeric entries (screen or keyboards), "click to dial" from screen information, and speech technology interfaces (speech recognition, text-to-speech). This will impact person-to-person contacts as well as telephone-oriented self-service applications (IVR).
All of the above user interfaces have greater ease of use and flexibility over the traditional touchtone telephone keypad used for the Telephone User Interface (TUI), especially where text input is concerned. With IP phones that have screen displays, call management prompting menus don't always have to be in speech output, especially if you are sitting down (and not driving a car). Screen inputs, coupled with speech recognition options, eliminate the sequential menu prompts that make it difficult or impossible to interface with traditional telephone self-service applications.
The bottom line for getting rid of the TUI is not simply improving the user application experience, but minimizing the need for live assistance in providing information and entering transactions. As call center management is well aware, the 70-80% of call center operational costs that are tied up with labor costs can be minimized by improving the visual and voice user application interfaces that are poorly served by the legacy touchtone telephone and its TUI. It also means that the wired/wireless telephone is no longer just for talking to people, but will be a flexible, multi-modal device for communicating with a variety of services as well.     
The Handwriting on the Wall - Communication Convergences at the Individual End User Interfaces
Particularly because 2005 has become a turning point for both IP telephony and wireless communications mobility, 2006 will the year that there will be more "meat on the bones" of converged communications. Based upon the disruptive change that IP communications is bringing to telephony, everyone is making predictions about what the technology and service providers will offer in 2006, as well as how fast the uptake will be by both the consumer and enterprise markets.
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week in Las Vegas highlighted Motorola's announcement of dual-mode wireless handsets for the residence market that will exploit "seamless" cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity for both individual and shared residence phone numbers within the home. As business users increasingly telecommute from their homes, it is obvious that dual addressing (like the Avaya-Nokia "Extension to Cellular" enterprise offering) can be extended to support the holy grail of a single device for both personal and business mobile contacts.
Once a single, screen-based multi-modal device (desktop or handheld) becomes available to end users, all the benefits of "intelligent" communications management can come into play. This used to be referred to as Computer Telephony Integration limited to just high-end enterprise call centers and supported skills-based routing, "screen pops" (contextual caller information), and logging of all call activity for performance and customer relations management reporting. With the end-to-end benefit of SIP-based presence management for multi-modal contacts across wired and wireless networks, we should now expect such "intelligence" being exploited in converged User Interfaces for contact initiators and contact recipients for all business and personal contacts manageable from a single device. 
2006 - The Year of the Converged, Mobile End User
Much as we need the secure and inefficient telephony and messaging network infrastructures and application servers, it will all be meaningless to enterprise business processes unless end-users benefit in terms of getting their job responsibilities done more efficiently. This boils down to understanding what end users need to communicate easier and faster with both people and with business information processes. Clearly, the way we used the telephone in the past leaves room for operational improvement and planning for the new benefits of IP telephony and wireless mobility means rethinking current business processes based on old telephony communications. This may help explain why market uptake for new IP telephony technology is limited to Greenfield and brownfield customers; everyone is trying to learn what needs to change to gain the benefits of communication convergence from the perspectives of different kinds of users.
This need is being reflected in the shift in IT management from simply current technology maintenance to more forward-looking understanding and planning for using new telecommunication capabilities. CIO magazine highlights this need in a new article, "The New IT Department: The Top Three Positions You Need." Two of these positions that I consider to be of strategic interest because they will be most affected by new IP telecommunications convergence and wireless mobility are:
The "Relationship Manager," who has to find ROI value from technology in terms of business process needs that will involve communication and interactions across the enterprise.
The "Business Analyst," who has to design specific business process applications that must now include initiating proactive, multi-modal contacts with specific individuals for time-critical information notifications and delivery. This can include both internal enterprise contacts, as well as external contacts, such as supply chain partners and customers.
While enterprise operational management is aware of how they do things today and the shortcomings that need improvement, they will need the technology expertise from the IT side of the house to help define and design the new solutions that exploit the benefits of converged, IP-based telecommunications technologies and services. Because IP telephony opens the door to network-based hosted and managed applications, the new challenge for IT management is also to realistically reevaluate what has to be CPE vs. outside services.
What Do You Think?
Do you agree that the user communication device interfaces are the pacing factor for market adoption of converged IP telecommunications? Who in the enterprise should be responsible for managing effective usage of converged communications, including all forms of messaging and conferencing? How should enterprise management identify the different end user communication features and functions that are needed? Can end users be "categorized" into different classes of service that will determine what devices or modalities of contact they can use? What management metrics need to be developed to insure effective usage that designing application speech interfaces is more critical for any mobile or telephony business application than an online GUI. What will be different about managing multi-modal traffic network requirements?
Let us know your opinions by sending an email to [email protected]
Happy New Year of Convergence!

[ Back To's Homepage ]