Gadgetry's New Glue

Businesses want to communicate without the barriers of proprietary technology and fragmented networks. The industry is starting to listen.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 22, 2005

7 Min Read

Communications used to be easy--every telephone connected with every other telephone. But the proliferation of different wired and wireless networks, mobile gadgets, and standards and protocols, and the growing variety of media--voice over IP, photos, video, E-mail, instant messaging, text messaging--keep moving us further away from the goal: no-hassle, real-time, anyplace communications.

It's a problem for businesses and consumers, and the communications industry is only starting to deal with it. Several networking, telecommunications, and mobile-platform vendors took steps last week to bring some order to the chaos. Two developments could provide quick relief to specific pain points: incompatibility in wireless E-mail and radio communications. A third offers hope that, in the long run, barriers among networks, devices, standards, and protocols will be invisible to us all.

Two PDA leaders came together last week when Research In Motion Ltd. extended its wireless E-mail platform to the Palm Inc. Treo 650 smart phone, which will be available early next year. For businesses that rely on wireless data, the deal means more device choices for their mobile workforces. The Treo and future Palm OS-based devices will be able to connect to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server, which already supports Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes.

Rudolph and Sletten Inc., a construction company, uses BlackBerrys and Treos and has different servers to support them. The company is open to the idea of using a single server for both. "We would definitely be cutting down on costs because we wouldn't need to buy multiple licenses," operations manager James McGibney says.

On another front, Cisco Systems this week will unveil a system to let incompatible walkie-talkie radios, or push-to-talk devices, communicate, resolving a potentially life-threatening problem that got a lot of attention when police and firefighters couldn't communicate by radio with each other during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks four years ago. Cisco's IP Interoperability and Collaboration System is designed to let proprietary and standards-based radios interoperate with each other, with other IP-based wired and wireless devices, and even with analog phones.

Honolulu has been testing the Cisco technology because its police, fire, and emergency personnel couldn't communicate directly over their radios. The system lets city agencies exchange information using IP and create smaller "talk groups" regardless of the device. "It gives us total flexibility and dynamics to [communicate] on the fly," says Gordon Bruce, Honolulu's CIO.

Big Obstacles Ahead
These two developments address specific instances of incompatibilities, but they barely touch on the larger issue: Users shouldn't need to worry about what network they're on, what device they're using, where the other person is located, or whether they need to install additional technology to make things work. Most of the nation's telecommunications service providers are trying to address that problem with technology called IP multimedia subsystem, known as IMS. It's designed to let traffic--whether voice, data, video, or multimedia messages--move from one network to another in a way that's transparent to the user. IMS technology is just getting off the ground, but two major service providers last week revealed plans to deploy IMS gear from Lucent Technologies Inc.

SBC Communications, one of the country's largest phone companies, and Cingular Wireless, a cellular-service provider jointly owned by SBC and BellSouth, intend to begin deploying IMS and may start delivering services over the infrastructure by the end of next year. "Cingular committing to IMS shows that it's not just a fad. It's here and will change carriers' business model and how they operate," Forrester Research analyst Ellen Daley predicts.

Maybe, but IMS faces a gauntlet that has felled more than one promising technology. Standards need to mature. Broad adoption is critical to success. And participants need to rally around a network architecture to ensure that everything works as planned.

If it does get widely deployed, IMS is expected to let telecom-service providers deliver services not available today, including voice over IP with multimedia features such as videoconferencing, presence awareness, buddy lists, and instant messaging. It could usher in converged services, like allowing a single contact number for your office, home, and cell phone. And it could enable active phone-book capabilities that let users chat or click-to-call others on a buddy list in a single session.

The idea of being able to use different networks such as Wi-Fi, wireless LANs, cellular, and wired without worrying about interconnections sounds great to on-the-go businesspeople. Fifty lawyers at California law firm Keesal, Young & Logan use handheld Treo devices daily to check availability of other colleagues through a workload application and to access client-billing and financial information. But to get sufficient coverage, the firm has contracts with Sprint, Cingular, and Verizon Wireless. Having devices and services that work across multiple carriers would give the lawyers more flexibility, without piling work on the IT staff, says director of information Justin Hectus. "We don't want our lawyers to jump through hoops to make things work," he says. "We don't want them to change the mode on their phone or sign into a foreign carrier. We want this process to be seamless to them."

Easier E-Mail
That's going to take some time. Probably years. But there's been surprisingly quick progress of late in breaking down barriers in wireless E-mail. Palm has been trying to make the Treo an open E-mail platform able to connect with any server, and it has forged partnerships with other mobile E-mail providers such as Good Technology, Intellisync, Microsoft, Seven Networks, and Visto. By adding RIM to the list, Palm will have access to 50,000 more servers that can talk to the Treo. "Just name the server, the Treo connects to it," says Joe Fabris, director of wireless marketing at Palm.

Earlier this month, Palm and Microsoft struck a deal that will bring to market the first Palm handheld running the Windows operating system, addressing demand for access to corporate E-mail on Microsoft Exchange servers. RIM, meanwhile, is extending Avaya Inc.'s VoIP applications so they connect to a BlackBerry over wireless LANs. RIM plans to integrate Avaya applications more tightly with business apps that already are supported on the BlackBerry, including tools for sales-force automation.

But making incompatible wireless devices and networks work together still isn't easy. "It's really no different from when MPLS [multiprotocol label switching] and VPNs first came out," Rudolph and Sletten's McGibney says. "They were of huge value to almost any company. But there were some early bugs that had to be worked out."

For businesses, the move away from proprietary technology toward standards-based communications is promising. Theoretically, they'll be able to support more devices on a single sever and have more flexibility in how they use the devices. It's a complicated goal, though customers should be able to easily measure progress. "We want to be able to talk to clients and not lose them in the middle of the conversation whenever we walk from a cellular tower and walk into a [Wi-Fi} hot-spot," says Hectus at Keesal, Young & Logan. "Soon that will be the thing of the past. Or, at least, that's what we're hoping."

Just how soon that happens remains to be seen. The history of the communications industry says these things will be accomplished--but not as soon as we hope.

Photo courtesy of Stone

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