Convergence vision:The IP debate

SMEs are the target market for IP technology but can it offer them anything that they don't already have? Companies will have to...

SMEs are the target market for IP technology but can it offer them anything that they don't already have? Companies will have to perceive real benefits before converting to this costly new system.

Now that the dust is settling after the launch of a number of LAN-based telephony systems and the initial hype is over, we can see the positions that the various vendors are taking with regard to the target market of SMEs.

It appears that the major slice of development has been geared to introducing IP from or to the desk. There's been no expense spared in producing space-age looking handsets and wire-speed layer 2 and 3 switches to transport voice as data over the LAN, coupled with reducing cabling infrastructure to a single outlet supporting both desktop PC and telephone.

The package looks irresistible and all that remains is to persuade the SME to buy into it - and that's where the problems begin.

No passive agreement
The largest section of the SME market comprises single site businesses of no more than 15 to 50 personnel. It is this section of the market that is expected to embrace the new technology, which will replace old legacy telephone and data systems.

It is also these businesses that will demand real benefits in return in terms of increased efficiency in working practices to generate greater profits. They will not passively agree to replace existing communications infrastructure just to acquire expensive IP telephone handsets that will provide little more functionality than the old legacy systems, and which dictate the need to upgrade existing data switches to accommodate inferior voice quality over the LAN.

The discerning SME may just ask what is the need to compress voice and force it over the LAN, just to call a colleague down the corridor?

Defeating the object
The reality is that the emphasis on virtually all of these new systems is to transport voice over the LAN fuelled by the promise of access to cheap telephone call charges, without regard as to how and when this would be deliverable - if ever.

The main benefit of this technology surely relates more to WAN's and VPN's better served by the switch itself, rather than expensive handsets.

These systems miss out on the most important benefits SME's actually need from this technology - a true single CTI platform providing full unified messaging to a users in-box, and total call control with integration to their biggest asset - their customer contact data base.

Separate bolt-on modules and servers defeat the objective of delivering these essential services economically to the existing desktop PC, which perform these functions better than any IP handset.

Real benefits required
With around eighty per cent of SME's using Microsoft Operating Software, manufacturers could be expected to have latched on to this fact and developed their systems along this path as a means of leveraging sales, and not just jump on the IP bandwagon and hope the average SME might not notice that after he had thrown out his existing legacy telephone and data equipment, his investment had achieved little or no additional benefits.

The lack of development with Microsoft Exchange Server as a means of delivery for all messaging formats means that customers are still offered old fashioned, port-based voice mail delivered to the handset, or worse - via a separate PC.

E-mail appears integrated, fax delivery is hardly even considered and text to speech is best not mentioned. Perhaps someone will develop a system in one box -but is there already one out there?

Larry Linin is managing director of New World Telecom

Management systems
In April 2002, Polycom - a developer and manufacturer of a range of voice and video communications terminals, conferencing and network access solutions - announced some functional enhancements to their iPower line of PC-based video conferencing products.

Among the changes are those which enable the integration of iPower 900 & 600 (video conferencing terminals originally known as PictureTel) with the company's Global Management System (GMS 2.6).

Remote changes
GMS 2.6, the latest version of the Web-based server application providing centralised support and management for video communications networks, permits remote changes to iPower system settings via the WebRemote interface, and in addition reports on call activity by department or budget code/customer.

The product line also supports the Polycom PathNavigator with its 'conference-on-demand' capability. This facility provides the iPower user interface with a 'conference' button, allowing the rapid and easy set-up of multipoint video calls without the need for a conference bridge or administrator. It also enables the incorporation of an IP telephony call into the video circuit.

End-to-end functionality
Craig Malloy, senior vice president and general manager, video communications at Polycom, sees the enhancements as a means of providing end-to-end functionality right across the Polycom product range.

"The iPower systems are an integral part of our solution and adding the support from Global Management Solutions and PathNavigator will give customers common management systems that are integrated with our network infrastructure systems."

He did not believe that this level of functionality was possible with other competitive systems.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)