As Voice over IP (VoIP) began to emerge as a viable communications option back in the late 1990s and early part of this decade, business operations by and large were conducted much like they had been for decades: a preponderance of large, central locations filled with people of all job descriptions. Executive, manufacturing, clerical, and customer service functions were typically housed in close proximity to each other, connected by the technology of the day ï¿½ analog, cellular, and wireless ï¿½ which served business needs quite well. Remote offices relied on wired digital technology to communicate with the head office, and cellular phones enabled mobile professionals to communicate with customers and team members whenever they needed.
The first VoIP solutions did not even attempt to satisfy overarching business drivers; instead they were positioned as solutions to address specific communications concerns. For instance, one of the more talked about benefits of first generation VoIP was the perception that the technology would significantly reduce long distance toll charges. Another potential advantage was better efficiency in network administration by collapsing redundant voice and data infrastructures into one cohesive, manageable network. But in reality, these benefits proved elusive to businesses for a number of reasons. Many long distance carriers, sensing the threat posed by VoIP, drastically reduced their tariffs to combat a VoIP incursion. In addition, many customers realized that carrying voice traffic on their data networks required substantial infrastructure improvements that did not offer a quantifiable return on investment.
Over the past several years, however, the adoption of VoIP solutions by businesses has risen steadily, to the point that no one in the industry can really doubt that IP is well on its way to replacing digital communications as the de facto solution for businesses. What change occurred that enabled it to become embraced by customers?
While there may be limited appeal to a customer just by transporting voice on a data network, more sophisticated businesses have discovered that VoIP technology has a distinct advantage over legacy solutions by enabling next generation applications that can address evolving business drivers in a rapidly changing economic environment.
Evolving Business Dynamics
Over the past several years, we have all been witness to a series of profound changes in the ways businesses operate. Tighter competition, higher costs, security concerns, and a scarcity of skilled labor have caused owners and managers to re-think how they can profitably operate their companies. Geographic limits on communications imposed by traditional telephony have been shattered by VoIP, and astute business people were quick to leverage the technology to help manage a changing business environment. For example, multi-location businesses have been effective in using VoIP to streamline communications between sites, resulting in higher efficiency and lower costs. Many companies have also used VoIP to implement telecommuting programs that enable valuable employees to handle both work and home responsibilities. The geographic transparency of VoIP is a perfect environment for telecommuters by allowing them to keep the same profile to customers and associates as if they were working in their offices.
Enterprises have also used IP communications as a means to increase productivity among its mobile employees. Presence and collaboration applications that are optimized in an IP environment are rapidly being embraced as important tools that can enable mobile professionals to increase sales, enhance customer service and improve efficiency through a vast array of advanced capabilities, such as call routing, document sharing, Web conferencing, chat, and more.
But as powerful and profound as VoIP has become in addressing todayï¿½s business issues, the reality is that no one can guarantee that the technology will have the same impact tomorrow. While we all would like to predict how business will be conducted in the future with some sort of accuracy, there are just too many variables to do so. Geopolitical issues, interest rates, macro- and micro-economic concerns, and technological innovation are just a few factors that may impact the business environment. And of course, there are other variables, like weather, energy supplies, natural disasters, changes to transportation infrastructure, and so on. So while it may be convenient to assume that todayï¿½s VoIP technology will adequately address tomorrowï¿½s business drivers ï¿½ much like we all assumed that TDM technology was sufficient to handle the changing business environment five years ago ï¿½ both common sense and history tell us that this is not necessarily so.
What can businesses do to ensure that their current investments in technology will have relevance in the wake of an ever evolving business climate? The responsibility really lies with equipment vendors and software developers to ensure that solutions remain dynamic, flexible, scalable, secure, and reliable. Perhaps the most effective way to accomplish this feat is to deliver an entirely new generation of communications solutions built on industry standards.
Industry Standards: A Long-term Approach
Standards-based communications platforms give enterprises a solid, reliable foundation to build their communications systems the way they want. Through this approach, businesses can use devices, applications, and tools without having to be concerned about interoperability and performance with closed-ended proprietary technology.
Itï¿½s a message that is starting to resonate with the market. Standard protocols like Session Initiation Protocol (News - Alert) (SIP) are already gaining a toe hold in market acceptance. Recent entrants into standards-based communications like SIP-B (SIP for Business), SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Extensions), BTXML, and security standards such as STUN and TURN are also gaining more acceptance among industry thought leaders.
Recent advances in standards-based communications have been quite formidable. Compared to earlier versions of industry standards ï¿½ most noticeably ISDN ï¿½ SIP can offer end users a robust communications experience that certainly rivals ï¿½ and exceeds ï¿½ the traditional proprietary offerings of many legacy vendors. The most recent SIP-based offerings, including SIP-B, can routinely deliver the PBX (News - Alert)-style functionality that businesses rely upon.
Other industry standards are just as potent from a technology perspective ï¿½ for example STUN and TURN, two protocols that enable communications traffic to negotiate various enterprise firewalls without compromising security or impeding the user experience. These protocols enable an enterprise to maintain the most stringent security, redundancy, and reliability requirements, satisfying IT demands while enhancing both communications and business processes. From an IT managerï¿½s perspective, this is a powerful combination.
Solutions Designed to Meet Tomorrowï¿½s Challenges
While it is apparent industry standards work from a technology perspective, the litmus test for standards-based communications, as with all technology, will be played out in the commercial arena. Will these standards really translate into profound business benefits?
In one respect, this is an open-ended and constantly evolving question. One of the most powerful benefits that emerging standards-based solutions offer businesses is their open-ended architecture.
We are already seeing a growing number of savvy managers exploring the possibility of integrating multi-functional SIP devices into their networks. These endpoints, manufactured by an increasing number of third-party developers, offer the enterprise a number of vertical and horizontal market solutions that can enhance business performance in meaningful and tangible ways. For example, the deployment of tools like SIP video phones or SIP-based point-of-sale devices into the network give managers the ability to integrate value-added devices of their choosing into their networks with the full comfort of knowing that these new solutions will operate seamlessly with the infrastructure.
This story is even more compelling when discussing applications. Just imagine the upside to a business owner when he or she can choose to leverage any number of vertical market, CRM, call accounting, or virtually any business-specific application into their infrastructure without having to worry about compatibility with a proprietary system.
Safeguarding Technology Investment
And thatï¿½s just the beginning. As business dynamics and economics continue to evolve, we cannot assume that existing proprietary technology will be able to handle new business challenges. And therein lies the power of SIP and other standards. The next generation of enterprise communications solutions will come from vendors working closely with the development community to build devices, applications and new offerings without the handcuffs of closed architecture, proprietary technology. These new tools will be created to solve tangible business problems, improve performance and increase efficiency. They will work uniformly within the enterprise infrastructure and interoperate seamlessly with other applications and devices within the enterprise. And the cycle will continue to refresh itself with even newer and more cost-friendly solutions as the development community continues to refine and re-energize innovation.
Standards-based communications will not have the answer for every business challenge ï¿½ but it wonï¿½t have to. That responsibility will lie in the creative minds of manufacturers and software developers who see SIP and other standards as their canvas. It will be up to them to use imagination, savvy, and instinct to build timely and relevant solutions that will serve the specific needs of businesses for years to come. IT
Jeff Ford is Chief Technology Officer and President ï¿½ Integrated Systems at Inter-Tel (News - Alert). For more information, please visit the company online at www.inter-tel.com.
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