Voice and data convergence
The convergence of voice and data is opening up a wealth of new possibilities in IT and telephony services. As the management of these services is increasingly handled by specialist carriers, in-house resources are freed up to capitalise on customer information from the range of channels at a company's disposal.
These new levels of customer and management information are by no means restricted to big companies. The Internet has become the channel for a range of services which customers used to perform for themselves, leaving them to concentrate on their core businesses.
Application service provision
There will come a time - and it may not be far off - when few companies will own and manage computer servers. Instead, they will have access, via the Internet, to applications running at data centres owned by outsourcing companies known as application service providers (ASPs).
These companies provide larger organisations with an alternative to installing and maintaining applications internally, and give smaller companies access to "best of breed" applications they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. Apart from substantial savings in software investment, the advantages include no longer having to depend on scarce and expensive software specialists, and enabling the IT function to concentrate on core business objectives rather than technology issues.
ASPs are already established as suppliers of enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, which are notoriously expensive and time-consuming to implement. Even at the other end of the scale, moves are afoot to rent rather than buy software, including Microsoft Office applications. The attraction of the rental market is that users will have constant access to the latest application upgrades, and can adopt a pay-as-you-use approach to minimise their outlays. Alternatively, the service may be provided at a fixed monthly cost. Application hosting can also be provided by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telcos. Such organisations will take on a company's e-business applications, handling every stage from designing the systems to setting up arrangements with logistics companies, invoicing companies and banking your earnings. There's a point where ASP and application hosting services merge into more traditional outsourcing. Some ASPs will manage your entire IT infrastructure, including networking and the desktop.
Internet telephone service providers
Some Internet Service Providers are evolving into ITSPs (Internet Telephony Service Providers). The telcos are countering the threat from start-up Internet telephony providers by offering their own services, and there are "clearing houses", set up by the likes of AT&T and Telia, who will handle all the agreements and billing arrangements with other carriers and countries with a single contract.
Customers must embrace the new technologies in order to remain competitive, but voice and data integration is commonly perceived as all hype and no substance. While bemoaning the lack of available bandwidth, many companies fail to appreciate that voice and data integration is one way out of their problems.
Most of us use at least three different messaging technologies in our everyday work - telephone, e-mail and fax. The volume of messages received using these technologies is on the increase, and dealing with mail takes up a growing part of the working day. Unified messaging offers a way of putting all these messages into a single "in-box", where they can be dealt with in priority order. The same interface that lists e-mails could also list faxes and voicemails, with details of who contacted us, and when.
Unified messaging also provides a way of keeping in touch with messages when travelling. Put a call through to pick up your voicemails, and a speech synthesiser can also tell you what e-mails and faxes you've received, giving you the option to have them read to you. This needs no specialist equipment - any domestic, office, hotel or mobile phone can be used. You can also arrange to have faxes redirected to a convenient number, or e-mails and even voicemails sent to a multimedia PC, using voice over IP. You can delete the junk faxes and e-mails.
Companies can either install their own unified messaging systems, or buy a service from a fixed or mobile telephone company. Mobile operators are already beginning to offer notification of faxes over the phone. Internet Service Providers are likely to offer these services as they attempt to break into the voice telephony market.
If a company decides to install its own, it will be dealing with suppliers like Lucent, Active Voice, Applied Voice Technologies and Callware. All the former voicemail companies are becoming unified messaging companies. We expect in the not too distant future that there will be very little difference in the price between unified messaging and voicemail, the choice and maturity of solutions will improve, so there's no rush, unless you are dissatisfied with your existing systems. But if you decide not to go unified now, do not invest in any messaging system without an eye to the future - ensure that the system can be unified. The next stage is to have smart tools that do automatic message handling; for example, automatically deleting junk mail, or sorting messages into appropriate folders.
Audio and videoconferencing
All you need for audio conferencing is a telephone. Suppliers of teleconferencing services will contact the people you wish to talk to, confirm an appropriate time, and then ring them to link them into the audio conferencing. They will even chair the meetings and provide tapes and transcripts in hard copy or word-processed form. Alternatively, you can set up the conference yourself. You will be given a phone number that everyone must dial, and a PIN for identification and security purposes.
Audio conferences can also be set up over the Internet, via the service provider's website. Not long from now, all the work of setting up the call will be done by intelligent agents, pieces of software residing on the network. It is already possible to set up audio conferences via e-mail products that check everyone's electronic diary for a suitable slot, then use the e-mail directory to send details and confirmations to all the participants.
Using Internet-enabled PCs it is possible to share screens of data, slides and documents while the conference is going on. Participants can even manipulate the data, and send one another confidential messages. Soon, the boundary between audio conferences and videoconferences will begin to blur.
Users could see schematic figures, known as avatars, representing the participants, and also view 3D representations of objects.
Over the last decade, videoconferencing has evolved from an expensive boardroom luxury to one that has the potential to become ubiquitous. As with audio conferencing, you can also view screens of data, spreadsheets or slides while the conference is going on. Videoconferences tend to involve smaller numbers of participants than audio conferences. More people means the screen needs to be divided into smaller and smaller windows. Hybrid video/audio conferences can be set up, in which a limited number of people give video presentations, and a larger number have the opportunity to question them over the phone - rather like a television phone-in.
The traditional private branch exchange (PBX) is a switch that handles the call traffic between an organisation's internal lines and the outside world. Increasingly, PBXs are converging with ACDs (automatic call distributors) which are switches designed for call centre operations. The emergence of ‘switches’ based on PCs has dramatically cut the cost of both kinds of switches. Some products have been specifically designed for small businesses and offer even more functionality. They may combine voice telephony with local and wide area networking, unified messaging and Internet access. The drawback is that PCs offer limited growth. The more you stuff into a PC, the smaller the number of people you can serve from it. If you want more than 100 people in your call centre, we recommend that having a high capacity switch or something dedicated like an ACD. You can buy a Lucent switch with an add-on box that runs the ACD software. That is the way the market's heading.
Almost all the products and services described use IP (Internet protocol). In fact, the convergence of data and voice on a single network is becoming synonymous with IP. Some organisations will no doubt invest in IP on a single network to cut their costs and simplify network management. However, this is to ignore the sheer richness of applications that convergence makes possible - the ability to combine audio and video, data, graphics, slides and documents and Internet services in any way you like, so as to maximise the effectiveness of your communications, whether with customers or colleagues.
In as little as five years the use of Internet technology to carry voice traffic could be the norm. No company can now afford to ignore the business benefits.
Voice and data communications can now be delivered over a single network. Until recently, the cost savings and business benefits of such integration have been enjoyed chiefly by big companies that have their own private networks and dedicated call centres. However, as the technology matures and becomes a commodity, it begins also to make sense for small businesses. Even if they think it does not look like a good investment for them now, it almost certainly soon will be.
Voice/data integration can offer companies immediate operational savings, both through lower direct communication costs, and by having just one network to manage. Even for a company without its own voice and/or data network, administering voice and data communications as separate processes increases overheads.
Of greater long-tem significance than the financial benefits, however, is the use of the technology to help manage relationships with customers across a variety of channels. Today's call centres can log and update customer information on a centralised database, proving a comprehensive record of the customer's behaviour and buying habits. Integration will enable call centres of the future to collate information from not merely telephone callers but also customers using the Web, interactive television and mobile phones.
Reviewed January 2011
last updated : 21/01/2011
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