In an effort to build on and expand the productivity and efficiency gains that have resulted from past business process re-engineering and automation projects, many enterprises are now looking to streamline their employee communications capabilities. Two technologies have received particular attention – the integration of voice and data that is Voice over IP (VoIP) and wireless mobility. According to IT giant Siemens, however, neither has yet hit anything like its real potential.
“VoIP in the enterprise space has not moved the market. It has not caused the churn rate in the installed TDM PBX base to increase” maintains Robert Thompson, president, HiPath Solutions, at the Enterprise Networks Division of Siemens Information and Communication Networks.
Thompson points out a number of reasons for the market’s slow uptake of VoIP. First off the installed TDM switch base is quite new – in part thanks to the recent replacement of existing equipment prompted by concerns about Y2K. Second, there are ways of accessing some of the benefits of IP working without a fork-lift change-out of TDM systems. Thompson instances management convergence through solutions such as IP trunking over TDM. Perhaps most seriously, though, ‘first generation’ IP has its limitations. “The value to the user has been: at the best I get the same thing; at the worst I might have less features, less functionality, less reliability” says Thompson.
Meantime, over the last several years it has almost become a business orthodoxy that enterprises that have added mobility to their repertoire of fixed communications services have been rewarded with material increases in productivity and reduced operating expenses relative to those that just use fixed communications. While acknowledging the present and future importance of mobility, Siemens maintains that its advertised productivity and OPEX benefits have remained elusive for many companies. “The issue with mobility is that today employees are not as effective when they are mobile as when they are in an office for any period. They are less productive, they are less reachable and they do not have access consistently to the services that are offered within the enterprise infrastructure” states Thompson. “In many cases they have to duplicate services – for example have multiple mailboxes.”
Siemens also argues that the cost of providing mobility can be out of proportion to any gains it delivers in business efficiency. “Even if you’re very diligent and you’re fully equipped you’re just not as effective when you’re mobile as when you’re local. And the costs associated with even achieving that level of effectiveness can be prohibitive to an enterprise” claims Thompson.
As Siemens sees it the problem is not that mobility can’t deliver on its ROI promise – for example the company claims a nine-month payback period for a £1 million investment that equipped its own UK engineering maintenance field force with GPRS-enabled PDAs. Rather, the problem is that many enterprises have tended to have an unsophisticated strategy for mobility, some for instance simply concentrating on obtaining lower call charges from their mobile service provider. Nor have very many integrated fixed and mobile enterprise solutions been brought to market.
Siemens now reckons to have unlocked the full potential of both converged voice and data and enterprise mobility with the introduction of OpenScape, a real-time communications application developed in partnership with Microsoft. OpenScape is part of the HiPath enterprise voice platform architecture but operates with all PBX infrastructures, and works in conjunction with the Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Real Time Communication Server.
Siemens characterises OpenScape as the first enterprise application to exploit the real power of converged voice and data. Unlike first generation IP, this ‘second generation’ IP solution is claimed to offer applications that actually deliver operational and efficiency benefits. “At Siemens we have long said that voice over IP is not the end in itself, but the means to an end,” comments Graham Walker, managing director, at Siemens Communications Ltd. “Convergence gives companies an essential basis to add powerful new applications, enhance workflow, and increase productivity.”
In its first version OpenScape combines presence information, Instant Messaging (IM), a range of multi-media collaboration tools, e-mail and the Outlook calendar to provide a single point of access for all office communication via a Personal Portal. The system incorporates a unique communications broker, an integration tool that converts incoming traffic into the most suitable format for the receiver. For example, if a mobile user accesses the Portal using a mobile phone OpenScape will seamlessly translate all e-mails to voice so users can retrieve all their messages. As such the communications broker is designed to overcome one of the main barriers to effective communication – the dependency on both users having specific devices and tools.
Presence-based information technology is used to describe the current status of other OpenScape users – for example ‘available’, ‘out of the office’, ‘working from home’, ‘working from customer’s premises’ and so forth – and users indicate the most appropriate form of communication for their current location and circumstance. In specifying their own presence information and preferred methods of communication, users can establish filtering rules, if necessary, about who they want to be available to. Users can choose to be available to only a handful of key customers, with any other traffic being automatically routed to voice mail.
The net result is that OpenScape users can see at a glance the status of required colleagues, and how they can contact them, be it by phone, SMS, MMS, e-mail or whatever. This gets around the fundamental problem of multiple, failed communication attempts and puts co-workers directly in touch with each other.
IM and buddy lists have become extremely popular with PC and mobile phone users allowing people to chat online via e-mail with friends who are logged on or on air at the same time. More recently, businesses have begun to use this intuitive technology to facilitate collaboration between work colleagues, although Thompson notes that the lack of security of public facilities has restricted IM use in enterprise applications that deal with sensitive customer, credit and financial data. As well as associating IM with presence information, Siemens is claiming another global first in that OpenScape offers IM that is secure, manageable and traceable.
In terms of collaboration at the most basic level OpenScape can be used to initiate a point-to-point phone call using a graphical interface. If a conference call is required, a user selects the participants and OpenScape does the rest, scheduling an appropriate time in all diaries. OpenScape also incorporates a multi-media collaboration suite allowing live document sharing, video conferencing, and interactive work sessions.
Unveiled earlier this year, OpenScape is due to ship in 3Q 2003. Siemens won’t be drawn on what future versions of OpenScape will look like, other than to say the next version could incorporate voice recognition and a higher degree of integration with applications such as Outlook. OpenScape Mark 2 is currently scheduled to ship in 3Q 2004.