Richness in the mix

What is the relevance of multimedia in a converged network? Cath Everett assesses where rich media can fit in and add value to...

What is the relevance of multimedia in a converged network? Cath Everett assesses where rich media can fit in and add value to your converged network, and whether it could become embedded into your different business applications

While the business case for implementing IP telephony applications on a converged network may initially seem stronger due to potential cost savings, organisations tend to roll out multimedia packages more quickly once a purchase has been made.

This, according to Zeus Kerravala, vice president of enterprise infrastructure at the Yankee Group, is because of the more immediate appeal of personal productivity applications such as unified messaging, which results in colleagues being keen to jump on the bandwagon.

Unified messaging suites provide a common user interface to integrated communications and collaboration packages such as email, instant messaging, voicemail and audio and video conferencing, so that they can all be accessed seamlessly from the desktop. Users can also contact others using whichever channel is most appropriate because such applications are 'presence-aware'.

This means that communication is not linked to individual devices, but to people, who can set up the system to follow them around and contact them by whichever means they choose at any given time.

The benefits derived from improved staff efficiency and responsiveness can be huge, says Elizabeth Herrell, a vice president at Forrester Research, as delays in completing individual tasks are reduced and access to information and co-workers is increased, and this can have a knock-on effect on customer satisfaction levels.

Single layer

But there are other, less obvious, advantages. Trying to contact others by multiple means costs money, not just in terms of lost output, but also in high phone bills. A single presentation layer also makes it easier for staff to make fuller use of the productivity features of different applications and devices as they only have to familiarise themselves with one user interface.

The use of audio and video conferencing technology, meanwhile, reduces the need for face-to-face meetings to deal with routine business matters and can slash expensive travel costs, while also fitting into green corporate governance initiatives.

Moreover, indicates Mark Blowers, a senior research analyst at the Butler Group, a raft of factors are now coming together to make such technology much easier to implement and use than was previously the case.

In the past, videoconferencing technology, for example, was based on expensive, proprietary hardware and software from different vendors that didn't always work together very effectively. But this has changed with the widespread adoption of the Session Initiation Protocol, which enables interoperability and has led to cheaper, commoditised equipment becoming available.

The move to converged broadband-based networks has also made videoconferencing easier to implement because much of the functionality is now provided in the software layer rather than in the hardware, which means it no longer needs to be assembled and installed by suppliers or systems integrators.

"Videoconferencing has been made much simpler on the back of the move to IP networks and VoIP. In the past, it cost thousands of pounds to set up a reasonable quality link and to get special infrastructure in place, but this is no longer necessary because it's now more of a software issue," Blowers explains. "Broadband is also a fixed rather than a variable cost and people can use it for other things such as email, which makes the whole thing more cost-effective."

While he sees the multimedia market as still in its infancy, Blowers expects organisations to start looking at it more seriously over the next couple of years. "VoIP is taking off and many companies look at it as a starting point. But once they do that, they think 'what else can we use it for?', and begin evaluating multimedia, videoconferencing or white-boarding to improve productivity," he says.

John Blake, head of hosted telephony at BT, agrees. "According to recent research, people like the idea of applications like video telephony, but they're unsure about adopting it now because other organisations haven't done so."

He expects this scenario to change by the middle of next year, however, when the next generation of video-phones arrive, "making the case compelling". These phones will be able to detect the presence of similar devices and automatically start a session if enough bandwidth - about 128kb per second - is available.

A key driver to adoption here, Blake adds, is that as the labour force becomes increasingly mobile and flexible in its work practices, such technology enables people to communicate and collaborate in a more ad hoc way than was previously the case.

Over the next few years, however, Blowers believes that multimedia will become increasingly embedded into different applications in an 'in-process and seamless fashion' so that it is eventually not considered as separate functionality, but as part of the standard mix.

"We're at the stage where vendors are beginning to build VoIP into applications and we'll start to see the same with multimedia. This means that users won't have to fire up functions such as videoconferencing separately because it will be integrated into packages and simply used as required," he says.

As a result, this will lead to huge shifts in the way that organisations operate, he believes.

"People have been talking about virtual businesses for a long time, but with IP-based services, the technology to do this becomes available for the first time. Because it enables more flexible ways of working, it will accelerate the move towards virtual environments and fundamentally alter the way businesses work," adds Blowers.

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