The future of business communications

The future of business communications looks less and less like a strict division between voice and data and more like a collection of communications components that can be blended with business applications as needed, according to opening day keynote addresses at the Internet Telephony conference Tuesday.

Rather than considering VoIP as a separate communications function that happens to run over an IP network, voice itself will become just a tool that may or may not be useful within applications, say two of the keynoters, Bill Rich, CEO of VoIP equipment vendor PingTel, and Eric Shepcaro, vice president of business strategy development at AT&T.

Rich said he envisioned corporate communications becoming more broadly controlled than it is now, with most communications directed by groups of SIP proxy servers and presence servers that establish communications paths through business networks and publish information about how individuals are connected to the network. This is in contrast to thinking of communications as either voice or data or some combination of the two.

As a result, businesses will lose the sense of a PBX as a free-standing device, and consider VoIP and its features as simply applications and features that can be blended with other applications to produce needed services.

A simple example, he said, would be enabling business applications with presence information so a worker who spends most of the day working in a finance application wouldn't have to activate a separate application in order to communicate with a colleague about the work they are doing. Presence information about colleagues would be displayed in the finance application, with means available to contact them via voice, video, instant messaging or e-mail. "You shouldn't have to switch out of your business application to communicate with others," he says.

Key to this architecture is a presence engine that gathers information about how workers are connected to the network and by what means they can be contacted or prefer to be contacted. "It then publishes this information to whatever person or application seeks it," he says.

Rich, who has been a key proponent of open source PBX software called sipX, says open source software will be a key element in bringing about the more open communications architecture he described. With free code for the essential elements of the architecture, businesses that want to develop integrated business/communications applications can do so less expensively and more quickly.

These developers will then sell their applications to businesses as well as support services, he says.

Uniform presence information, he says, will eliminate the problems of having to check several different places to retrieve voice messages and e-mails from several different accounts. Instead, a person will be able to check a central repository and get messages of all forms and an interface to contact the people who left them by any means - voice, video, e-mail, instant messaging, etc.

AT&T said that later this year, it would open up an application development environment in its network where businesses could create business software that would then run as a custom service on the network. Called Service Development, the platform would enable customers to blend individual components and capabilities of AT&T's IP network to fashion unique applications.

"We are transitioning AT&T to a software-based company," he said.

The application development environment will include a software developer's kit and a gateway where customers can program their software. "They'll be able to go to the gateway, write an application, VoIP-enable it and use it," he said.

The company says it will also give customers a portal where they can directly increase bandwidth on their network connections, or boost processing power or alter QoS directly as they need it.

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