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Communications in Context Moving Beyond the Lowest Common Denominator

By Monty Sharma


Let me express my respect for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and what it has given the world in terms of quality voice communications before I tell you that it has led us to a world where communication has become more and more unnatural.

Technology always comes with limits. Unfortunately, we have adopted the limitations of the lowest common denominator technologies and made them the basis for how we communicate. The good news is that with IP communications, we have the opportunity to create communication services that are tailored for their context, useful and natural for a given situation or activity.

Today, we are network-centric I use my cell phone to call your landline; my PC to call your soft phone. For each, I need to know an arbitrary identifier (ok, a phone number) and do not know if you are there. IP communications gives us the ability to combine the power of the network and endpoints to make communication natural in the context in which it occurs. Companies that implement these types of communications as part of their product/solution, with an understanding of these issues, can increase revenue, improve user experience, and help build solutions for the next generation of communications.

Context is not something we have traditionally thought about in the communications field, but in life it shapes all communication. When you talk to someone in a business meeting it is a different style of communicating compared to talking to your daughters boyfriend (in one instance politeness is required; in the other it is appropriate to stare them down you decide which is which). We spend many years educating children on the importance of communicating in context dont talk in school unless you raise your hand; talk to your parents, unless your mom is on the phone. These lessons are learned and pushed down into our psyche to a level where they control where, what, and how we communicate. This natural expression in many ways conflicts with the world of technology.

The Internet gives us a reach anyone at anytime way of thinking. Unfortunately, we do not want the world to reach us most of the time (contrary to what spammers think). The early development of online communications has been focused on making it work. Now we need to combine the power of technology with the lessons our parents taught us. This changes both the experience for the user and the financial model for the industry.

In developing solutions for context-specific communications, you need to consider the context, the mode, and the control of the communication.

Context comprises three elements:

Presence focuses on the user and what they are currently doing: what device are they using, are they active, where are they, etc.

Rules created by the community owner as to how they want communication to occur in this instance.

Preferences the user should always have the ability to specify their preference within the rules set by the service provider.

Together, these elements can provide a logical construct to build many different services from a common service delivery platform.

When thinking of communications platforms, we often think of them as distinct elements voice network, IM network, e-mail server, and others. In the next generation of services, these lines will blur as we use multi-modal communications, mixing voice and text. The best examples of this I have seen has been in game play, where people mix voice and text on the fly. In some cases, it is the longevity value of text; it remains on the screen for people to refer to later. Locations, values, and instructions are well suited to this. On the flip side, when an anonymous call is scheduled for five oclock and one party is in a situation where they can not answer the call, their ability to send an IM, e-mail, or SMS to the service to change the time of the call has great value. The world has long imagined voice commands as an interface and day by day we see more of this in the real world. What this leads us to is an architecture where all modes of communication need to be integrated at the control level.

For communications companies, context impacts revenue models substantially: some calls are worth more than others. Mobile operators have long offered service for less than 10 cents per minute; fixed operators offer unlimited usage for $15. But in the right context a minute can be worth as much as a dollar.

The online dating industry, which has 40 million users in the U.S., delivers the opportunity to find a mate in a simple way through one of their databases. But, after finding a possible match by looking at their profile, there comes the time when you need to take the relationship to the next level and talk to the prospective love of your life. However, by this point in time, you may not know this person well enough to want to give up your phone number. In the age of Google and stalker horror stories, this is a valuable piece of personal data. To minimize the risk, an anonymous call costing from $.60$1.00 per minute that hides your personal data is well worth the cost. Value comes from several things: maintaining your anonymity, reaching your possible mate without having to giving up your personal information, and the spontaneity and immediacy of connecting at the click of a button.

The opposite, in terms of dollars per minute, is seen in the online gaming industry, which sees players spending 20 hours a week in online worlds. To this audience, the value of the communication comes from reinforcing the immersive nature of the virtual world. Augmenting the game experience with voice may be worth from one to ten dollars per month with unlimited usage. Everything from click to call to customer service will establish price points that break our old network-centric business models.

Context also impacts users experiences and their sense of what they are buying. In the old days, the limit of context was Find Me/Follow Me functions: a complex set of IVR commands that would supposedly make our lives easier. Users become frustrated by having to constantly tell the system where they are and what they want to have happen. Now, with technologies like presence we know where and when a user is online and, by connecting to their calendar, we can generate a sense of what they are doing. Companies can then use this information to determine if the call from someone you are going to meet with next should ring while you are in a meeting.

In another context, new companies are emerging who take conference servers and wrap them with rules that allow online communities to create Bar Stools. These bridges can be set with rules that allow two males and two females in, with the ability to spawn a new call bridge when needed. The experience for the user is the ability to have a small group conversation. The value for the site operator is the charge of $10 per hour.

The future of communications is centered on a merger of physical item and expansion of virtual intelligence. I would much rather use my cell phone than a land line; the cell phone offers a phone book that syncs with my PC, a call log, the ability to erase a digit when I miss a key. But is it a phone? I get e-mail on it, send IMs, and use it to browse the Web and the time spent on those often exceeds the minutes I spend on a voice circuit.

The simple lesson is: devices will merge and add functionality as we move further and further away from the black phone with the rotary dial. The merger of physical devices provides us with more information to improve the user experience. Since we have the phone book and the calendar, decisions can be made; calls that are important go through, others are sent to voice mail. Services that reside in the network will negotiate with the end point on how communication will be handled. Combining presence and location information generates even more information to deliver the best user experience. These options provide higher value services to users and break the industry out of the per-minute thinking.

The power of communications in context will change the way the world interacts. The physical and logical separation of networks will end and we will mix control and data across them all. As the user steps away from the network they will be able to use communication options that are integrated into the context and deliver a more natural experience. The value of the experience will determine what the communication costs. At the end, you get what you want and you pay for what you need. IT

Monty Sharma is vice president of product management and marketing at Vivox. For more information, please visit the company online at (news - alerts).

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