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Monday, September 12, 2005

IP Telephony Applications Go Beyond the Phone

I recently read an article that quoted a survey from a research firm that asked customers what were the motivating factors for IP telephony. ‘Applications’ came in a close second to integrated networks. The article went on to describe the myriad of third party and integrator written applications that provide a user interface through Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) on the IP telephone. They missed the point completely.

IP telephony indeed creates converged networks and allows for tight integration between a telephone and a computer. Thus, traditionally computer based applications can be incorporated into the phone, but much more beneficial from both an ease of use and productivity perspective is the integration of telephony to the computer desktop.

An attendance application accessed through an IP telephone display allowing a teacher to track student attendance and record it to a backend database is a novel idea. However, most classrooms I’ve been in don’t have a telephone on the teacher’s desk. What’s more, you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher without a laptop nowadays. With the push for Internet ready classrooms, a wired (if not wireless) connection is available for the teacher’s computer eliminating the need for the IP telephone attendance application. Furthermore, ever try dialing by name on a 10-digit numeric keypad? It’s painful and slow when compared to the more intuitive interface for alpha-numeric entry into a computer system – the keyboard and mouse.

IP telephone applications can serve a purpose – easy access to a calculator or measurement converter, weather reports by zip code – in fact, any application that requires number input is relatively easy and intuitive. Additionally, phones are much more pervasive than computers, so the right IP telephone application can fill a void where a computer would have otherwise needed to exist. For example, an IP telephone time clock application on a factory floor eliminates the need for a separate phone and time clock and can seamlessly link the time clock application to an IP database that integrates with workers’ personnel information. The original article covered the IP telephone based applications but completely missed the integration of telephony to computer applications. This is where the real benefit of IP telephony is seen.

An IP telephony based call center integrates computer based ticketing systems and user directories with a telephony Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and queuing mechanisms for callers. Screen pops to the support personnel’s monitor offer detailed caller information based on data gathered by the IVR menu system. Select and dial applications allow a user to highlight a phone number anywhere on the computer desktop – in a contact database, a document or even a web page – and send the number to the IP telephone for dialing. IP software phones can even eliminate the need for a hardware handset. For mobile users, this provides the next level of flexibility in communications. With a VPN, a remote user can use their work phone extension as if they were at their desk.

Integrating telephony into traditional computer applications will give rise to the next “killer app”. A presence aware application that unites disparate communications paths regardless of vendor or end device is not a fantasy. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) enabled devices will provide the uniform protocol to enable application writers to tie email, voice mail and instant messaging with audio and video telephony and real-time collaboration all from a user’s computer. Moving audio telephony to the computer and doing away with the hardware phone set completes the true mobility solution and allows a user freedom of communication transparency. The user can be anywhere and yet collaborate with team members as if they were in a conference room or sitting next to each other at their office desks.

Moving away from a telephone handset and a videoconferencing endpoint and providing these services through desktop based application allows for cost savings on expensive hardware and transfers capital expenditures to more affordable software model. Licensing costs may vary depending on vendor, but with open standards like SIP, there are sure to be freeware alternatives for Small and Medium sized Business (SMB).

The benefit of IP telephony can not be expressed in a single statement – a converged network is easier to manage, users have more mobility, support costs are reduced, application integration increases productivity. These are all true statements, so the motivating factors for an IP telephony deployment can not be reduced to a single requirement. Rather, a holistic view of the benefits to the enterprise and its users help to justify the movement towards converged communications, not a sexy application on an IP telephone’s display.

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