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5/24/2005
10:24 AM
Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
Commentary
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Real-Time Communications Dashboards: What's the Holdup?

Truly paradigm-shifting technologies are few and far between. Every now and then something actually lives up to the promise of changing how people live and work (e-mail, cell phones, and ERP solutions come to mind). But how often do technologies deliver on their promises in the real world?

No surprise, then, that IT executives are skeptical about deploying the innovation du jour. They've been burnt too many times by technologies that don't so what they say they will, or do so at an unanticipated price (yeah, that ERP solution software changed your business processes, all right--but it was tough, costly and very painful to deploy). So I can see why IT execs are skittish.

But I just don't get their reluctance to implement real-time communications dashboards. Real-time communications dashboards (or RTCDs) really can—and will—change the way people work, day in and day out. They'll also change the way businesses operate, from their basic IT costs to their facilities, operations, employee deployment strategies, and ability to change and grow on a dime.

What are RTCDs? In essence, they're applications that pull presence information from both PCs and telephones (in the future, expect them to also tap cell phones, smart cards, RFID chips, and even GPS systems). Think of them as soft phones on steroids: They display presence state for all a user's contacts, and allow simple, one-click controls to launch IM, e-mail, telephone calls and audio, video and Web conferencing applications. The best tools today also have rich user and administrator preference controls (especially key when it comes to setting presence states), and are starting down the path of federation, whether with Microsoft (and its Live Communication Server) and the consumer IM services (AOL, MSN and Yahoo), or by allowing one company to federate with another on the same system.

In my view, real-time communications dashboards will define the look of the desktop (and palmtop) of tomorrow. More and more employees are working away not just from headquarters, but also from their managers and regular co-workers. Nemertes' research shows that on average, the number of virtual workers has increased by 800% over the past five years, and 58% of IT executives consider their company to be a virtual workplace. Yet despite the changes, employees' need to communicate hasn't changed—if anything it's increased significantly, as it's harder and harder for people to reach each other across time zones and geographies, ensuring they can get the information they need when they need it.

As a result, more companies are deploying real-time communications tools such as instant messaging and audio, video and Web conferencing. And to make the best use of those tools, they need the ability to know where a person is, as well as what they're doing and how they'd best like to be reached. In short, they need RTCDs.

Still, only 7% of companies report using real-time communications dashboards today. The good news is, another 40% plan to do so in the next two years. What's more, when asked if an all-in-one application is appealing, fully 77% said yes, and another 12% said maybe. But what's taking so long? Well, part of the problem, quite frankly, is that many, maybe most, IT executives don't really know what a real-time communications dashboard even looks like, never mind what value it might offer. That certainly makes it tough to shell out money for them.

Real-time communications dashboards are significantly more useful than any one collaboration application on its own, and they're a vast improvement over stand-alone e-mail or phones. And although they don't require IP or converged networks, real-time communications dashboards are a great way for companies that have deployed next-generation networks to leverage them. We at Nemertes expect real-time communications dashboards will be deployed in large numbers in the next three to five years. But I, for one, wish the deployments would happen faster.

Net6's Next-Gen Network

Net6 provides access solutions in three main areas—mobility, IP telephony, and secure remote access to PCs—and delivers applications to IP phones from vendors such as Avaya, Cisco and Nortel.

The vendor has built a universal access product to deliver three things: the ability for employees to access all their resources (data and applications); the ability for employees to access their peers, inside or outside the company (via application sharing, Web conferencing, and so on); and the ability to access voice. On the latter front, for instance, users working at home can receive a pop-up message on their desktop that a call is coming into their phone at the office—and then click to take the call on their phone, transfer the call to a cell or home phone, or send the call to voicemail.

The product is a simple gateway that resides in the enterprise, or is hosted by a carrier, and an agent runs on the end user's device (including PCs, PDAs and IP phones). The vendor does not offer its own GUI, but speaks to another vendor's PBX, completing the call from there.
The company's presence aggregator takes presence information from two sources: public IM services (to deliver PC presence) and phone presence (from the telephony vendors and LCS, not from carriers). It's essentially doing what SIP would do—except of course that SIP doesn't enable that today. The Net6 product contains all the relevant contact information (phone numbers, IM screen names, and e-mail addresses), and the application at hand drives which mode gets used when.

In any event, it's no wonder so many telephony vendors are offering products that themselves offer a variety of features and applications, ranging from IM, audio, video and Web conferencing, and presence. All the large, traditional networking vendors, including Avaya, Nortel and Seimens, have developed real-time communications dashboard applications.

Avaya's Converged Communications Server includes a variety of SIP-based services and works with the vendor's IP telephony software, Communication Manager, which acts as a telephony feature server to integrate communications between SIP, H.323, digital and analog endpoints. The company's IP soft phone supports presence, integrating IM and telephony via a single buddy list, and users can click to launch a call from within IM. Avaya recently acquired Spectel for audio conferencing capabilities, and its video conferencing telephony desktop solution integrates the vendor's soft phone with the Polycom desktop solution, to video-enable a regular call. That lets users manage a video conference as they would a voice call, without need for a separate device.

Nortel's Multimedia Communication Server (MCS) 5100 drives VOIP networks, delivering multimedia and collaborative applications to the enterprise on an open platform that supports industry-standard protocols, including SIP and H.323. Collaborative applications include video conferencing, audio and video streaming, white-boarding, file exchange, and instant messaging. Telephony services include call redirect and call forwarding, conferencing, call hold and waiting, multiple server registration, and real-time call management. The software also supports mobile workers with dynamic registration and find me/follow me capabilities. Nortel's partnership with Polycom currently enables one-click, point-to-point video conferencing.

Users can personalize the system with the Personal Call Agent, giving users control over their communications space and how they display their presence information. And the system can leverage presence at a granular level, showing, for example, whether someone is hosting an audio or Web conference or just participating in the event. Nortel intends to expand on the presence information it uses, and extend that information to other applications. The company wants to aggregate device presence, location information, network types, and even active roots data so that depending on what root on a user's MCS is active at a point in time, that information will generate the user's presence state. The information itself could be internal or external.

Siemens' OpenScape lets workers see their colleagues' availability across an IP network, whether they're available on e-mail, IM, or the phone, or working within other enterprise applications. The software, based on SIP and SIMPLE, among other industry standards, lets users prioritize and control who can reach them, where, and when. One-click access to WebEx Web conferencing makes it easy for people to jump into a meeting as soon as they're all available. OpenScape operates on Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 and enhances Microsoft e-mail and Windows Messenger, as well as voice and wireless communications. But its open nature allows it to integrate with other enterprise applications. Essentially, OpenScape applies the buddy list concept to all enterprise communications, extending presence awareness to the telephone, cell phone, e-mail, and conferencing. Users can click to identify which method they want others to use at different times or for different reasons, and initiate a real-time meeting by selecting participants from their buddy list and clicking on "audio conference" or "multimedia collaboration." The application contacts attendees and lets them access relevant documents via a collaboration portal.

Next month at the Collaborative Technologies Conference 2005 (CTC 2005), we'll have a session on the software that's specifically designed to showcase these and other applications, so that attendees get a look at what they can really do (I hosted a similar session at this month's Interop conference; many of the attendees told me afterward that they were really excited by this "unknown" technology). It really, it pays to see the apps—they're cool, and they really will change the way you and your team does business. I promise.

Sr. Vice President and Founding Partner, Melanie Turek, is a reknowned expert in enterprise application integration software, collaboration technologies, and business intelligence at Nemertes Research. For the past 10 years, Ms. Turek has worked closely with hundreds of senior IT executives across a range of industries. She also has in-depth experience with business-process engineering, project management, and productivity and performance enhancement.

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