Industry pundits say we'll soon live in a world in which the network tells us where someone is located, how best to make contact and, after making contact, support collaboration and access to data from anywhere. The solution: unified communications.
"That's the future," Cisco Systems CEO, John Chambers, said in his keynote at the recent Interop event. "It's a hard concept [to understand], but it goes right to the issue of increased productivity."
The bottom line, Chambers and others said, is just that: the bottom line.
Unified communications will speed business processes dramatically, which will result in more responsive companies and significant increases in productivity.
But two big questions were also frequently repeated at Interop. First, when will this change occur? Second, is the technology up to the task?
What it will look like
Besides Cisco, Microsoft was another corporate force touting unified communications.
The software giant announced it has expanded the reach of its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007. In particular, it announced the software now works with the wares of a number of PBX vendors. "Voice used to be a silo application," director of business development at Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, Anthony Bawcutt, said in an interview.
However, he said, products like OCS are moving toward unifying the multiple types of communication now deployed separately.
"Say my preferred mode of communications is email. Today, some people use IM to check on somebody's presence or availability or even send an instant message to say, 'Do you have a minute to talk?'" he said.
With unified communications, Bawcutt said, you'll know where the other person is physically located. The system is also aware of the different modes of communication available to them and which they preferred.
The system is also capable of working with other applications. Users can set up a collaboration session on a document they are developing with another person for example and seamlessly access back-office data.
Another thing that makes unified communications special, advocates claim, is it works over any type of IP network and can be centrally managed via servers such as Microsoft's OCS.
"It can also hook into Outlook, Word docs, SAP workflow applications; it's just another server managed by the IT department," Bawcutt said.
For end-users, unified communications offers single logon and authentication to access all these various modes of communication.
Besides greater control over communications, Bawcutt cited one other benefit of unified communications that would be particularly appealing to IT managers: cost.
"This moves [communications] from hardware [such as PBXs] to software, where we can drive the cost out of it," Bawcutt said. "So we drive the cost down and new people are coming into the workplace who were raised on instant messaging. I think there's a perfect storm brewing here."
What's the holdup?
If this brave new world of unified communications will drive down costs, simplify use and administration of multiple types of communication and increase productivity, why aren't users rushing to the promised land more quickly? Even proponents like Bawcutt say unified communications will take a while to catch on.
"I think 2010 is the inflection point where we'll have 100 million [unified communications] users," he said. Speakers at Interop noted several other reasons this would take some time.
One important reason is the pervasiveness of legacy equipment such as PBXs. That's why, for instance, Microsoft's big announcement at Interop was that OCS now works with several PBXs from 12 high-visibility vendors. That marriage of new software and older-style PBX technology would start to give legacy systems more capabilities, Bawcutt said. But perhaps a bigger problem, speakers at two expert sessions at Interop said, was that the networks were still evolving to handle the increased IP traffic c - particularly in terms of voice and video - that unified communications portends.
Specifically, current-generation Wi-Fi networks aren't fast enough and don't provide quality of service to handle a lot of voice and media. 3G networks are still slow and aren't intrinsically IP based but, rather, are packet-switched networks. And next-generation wireless networks, such as mobile WiMax, are now starting to get off the ground and won't be a factor in the short-term.
When will it be ready?
"All these things go through growth curves with early adopters and then they take off more broadly," senior vice-president of operations at Soma Networks, Tom Flak, said in a panel discussion on the topic of personal mobile broadband. "But it'll be a number of years before we achieve [ubiquity]. It's here today, but it's not very widespread, and it's not standardised across operators."
In a session on the future of Wi-Fi, panelists agreed that Wi-Fi will eventually be more up to the task, particularly as 802.11n catches on both in its current draft form and after ratification of the standard, which is expected late next year.
"We view the WLAN as a perfect complement to 3G," standardisation manager at Nokia, Prabodh Varshney, said. "Voice is very big for us, and voice over Wi-Fi is something most users will appreciate."
But Varshney and other panelists agreed that before that happens widely, not only would 802.11n need to be ratified but related standards - such as one that would better manage how mobile information, including voice, was handed off from one Wi-Fi access point to another - must also be adopted.