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The Advent Of Multimedia, Multi-Party Collaboration

By Jack Jachner & Chris Vuillaume


In this second of a series of articles which address the Enterprise, we focus on the advent of collaboration, a key component of user-centric communication. The increasing number of geographically distributed teams working together, and the increasing range of available technology tools, has created interesting new business opportunities. Today, on-line collaboration is the fastest growing sector of communication in both numbers of users and numbers of minutes.

In essence, collaboration is a multimedia communication: users need to share, edit, and create information, and must communicate with other users simultaneously in order to do so, while being successful in their jobs. Numerous media are available (voice, video, text IM, and others), as well as many types of information to be shared. It is this very diversity that creates usability problems.

There are five dimensions of usability problems, which include:
Variety of Devices (Blackberry, PDA, cell, desk phone, POTS, IP/POTS, PC...) and Network Access (security, QoS, policy, bandwidth), which cause connection issues;
Variety of Media (voice, video, text IM...);
Variety of Information (text, graphics, presentations, spreadsheet, computer desktops...);
Variety of Actions (sharing, editing, creating, recording...);
Variety of Interactions (scheduled, non-scheduled, ad hoc).

The essential element in successful collaboration is to make these usability problems go away. People dont want to go to meetings or use tools they simply want to get their work done, and need to communicate with others to achieve this.

The technology of Presence is a key facilitator to enabling a clear path to communication and making sense of available means. Tracking down a colleague to discuss a presentation can be avoided using presence, if the interaction will be pointless for example his calls are routed to a mobile phone, where no tools are available for collaborating.

To complicate matters, collaboration might be required at any time. If users are required to start up a special meeting tool each time to access this type of communication, collaboration will always be relegated to a niche, scheduled existence, within the enterprise workflow. Its unrealistic to rely on users to update their presence, location, or devices manually using a "meeting tool."

Two technology components are needed to resolve this dilemma: a simple and intuitive graphical user interface (GUI), and a signaling protocol that can transport rich presence information along with the communication and collaboration signaling. The rich GUI for communication must be available at all times, but not be intrusive. It must let users see quickly and simply what modes of communication and what multimedia tools are available to them and to other users, both before and once a communication is in session. Is my colleague available via IM or telephone? This GUI should be consistent across all user devices whether users are collaborating from their desk or in their home office.

The signaling protocol needs to be lightweight enough to scale up as densely as phone call signaling, in speed and volume, while being rich enough to handle a dynamically changing set of people and terminals. Fortunately, both problems have field-proven solutions.

Numerous user interface metaphors have been tried. The "meeting-table" (with avatar-like users sitting around a table), and a tools approach (which presents a dashboard of tools from which a user can choose) are among the most common options. However, both are poor choices. The idea of a Web meeting is flawed as most knowledge workers list meetings as the least productive part of their work. Consequently, the idea of reproducing a meeting room on-line is likely to fail. Also, most people do not think about what tools they need; they simply use them!

A promising user interface emerged in instant messaging (IM), already a popular way to communicate with others that made its way mainstream through various providers. The IM interface is a list of buddies, or contacts, with an indication of their presence. This is a simple and natural way to implement all real-time communication. This user interface metaphor is immediately understandable to anyone who might already be using IM, and is easily expanded to richer media.

Users have a rich set of communication choices at their disposal: they can phone, exchange instant messages, participate in conferences, share applications, share video, and more. These choices are made clear in the GUI by the simple presentation of rich presence information. Communication and collaboration can take place without wondering how the participants will be involved, using which device, or where they are located. The user will focus on the active collaboration and not the tools enabling the communication.

In a sense, IM becomes a sort of interactive Caller ID, providing more then the just the identity of the user, making it possible to work with remote on-line colleagues, rather than just scheduling a Web meeting.

On the signaling front, the solution is provided by the IETF SIP standard. SIP was designed with the needs of multimedia multi-party sessions in mind. The use of SIP for telephony calls is a trivial case of collaboration. Similarly, the use of SIP for IM and presence signaling stemmed from the fact that communication/ collaboration has the greatest need for presence notifications.

SIP is naturally multi-party, multimedia, and mobility aware. Most importantly, it is an Internet-friendly protocol, which integrates with all the other IETF protocols. Consequently, a SIP-based infrastructure can ensure that collaboration applications no longer have a niche status, by integrating them naturally with other Internet user applications.

The business impact of collaboration is already apparent and will continue to grow over the next five years. For the enterprise user, it represents efficient real-time teamwork and a more effective use of high-value staff, and better responsiveness to customers, translating to a strong competitive advantage. For the IT manager, it means the integration of enterprise communication tools into a cohesive whole. For the vendor community, it represents a shift from stand-alone products to integrated collaboration solutions. IT

This editorial column series is a collaborative effort between Jack Jachner (Senior Director with the CTO office) and Chris Vuillaume (VP Product Marketing with enterprise products) at Alcatel. For more information, please visit

If you are interested in purchasing reprints of this article (in either print or PDF format), please visit Reprint Management Services online at or contact a representative via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 800-290-5460.

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