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VoiceCon Spring: A transition show for the VoIP industry

VoiceCon Spring was all about unified communications. Zeus Kerravala provides highlights of the more interesting points from the show.

VoiceCon Spring 2007
The VoIP industry is rapidly evolving from voice to one that includes messaging, applications, mobility and, soon, many emerging consumer technologies. Keeping up with the industry transformation, VoiceCon is undergoing a radical change, shifting its target audience from telecom and network managers to a broader following that has appeal all the way up the IT stack and, in some cases, C-level relevancy.

The big theme for VoiceCon Spring 2007 was unified communications (UC), which initially made me think it would be the same show as VoiceCon 2006. To some extent, this was true, but a number of things I witnessed convinced me that VoIP is rapidly becoming more than just a cheap way to make phone calls. Here are some highlights of the more interesting points from the show.

The Microsoft impact
Microsoft was easily the most talked about vendor. This is remarkable considering OCS hasn't even shipped yet. It's crystal clear that Microsoft will have a significant impact on the UC market, but the software giant will need to deliver a quality product upon release. I spoke with many people who remain skeptical of Microsoft's ability to deliver a business-ready solution on Day 1. Long term, I fully expect that most companies will have some element of Microsoft's UC suite, but it will coexist with other vendor products. For organizations considering Microsoft OCS, almost every vendor demonstrated deep integration into OCS (as much as Microsoft allows), so you should feel comfortable moving forward with your current vendor of choice and then integrating Microsoft at a later date.

IBM finally joins the UC game
VoiceCon 2007 officially welcomed IBM to the UC party as it announced its UC2 strategy (unified collaborative communications) built on top of its Lotus Sametime and Notes products. IBM, a longtime partner of Cisco, has historically sat on the sidelines and watched the market evolve. In my opinion, IBM has decided to enter the market because of the momentum Microsoft has gained (more Microsoft impact). For those of you who are still Lotus shops, this is certainly good news.

Avaya's Communications Enabled Business Processes (CEBP)
Avaya's CEBP was one of the more interesting things that I saw at VoiceCon. CEBP allows communication-centric Web services to be triggered automatically. So, for example, when an application hits a certain condition, it can send notifications using the phone, email, SMS or instant messenger. Since it's linked to UC, the system can use the presence status of users to understand where to send notification messages, contact availability, and so on. This type of solution will help bridge the gap between applications and communications and attract a broader group of vendors to this industry.

Almost every vendor I visited demonstrated its ability to extend UC to a mobile device. Some vendors were further along than others, but you'll see much more UC extension to smartphones over the next year or so. The Nokia E61 seemed to be the mobile phone of choice for demonstration purposes, followed by BlackBerry. Conspicuous by its absence was the Treo, which most users like but has many stability problems.

What's ahead for the voice industry?
This year's conference was interesting, but the conversations I had with people on the trade show floor did not quite map to the sessions. Putting on my prognosticator hat, I am predicting that you'll see much more in the following areas, not just at VoiceCon but in the communications industry in general.

  • Integration with social computing tools: The value of UC is to enable better collaboration, but most of the tools offered today are developed by old people for old people. By "old people" I mean the over-30 generation (I'm in this camp), who use collaboration tools like voice conferencing and email. The collaboration tools that will be the norm are the ones being used by today's younger generation and include many of the collaboration tools you would find on MySpace, such as wikis, blogs and podcasts. Expect to see a much tighter coupling between today's tools and social computing.

  • Application integration: I would actually like to see more events and media attention devoted to this. TMC media has a show called the Communications Developer conference, which is in its third year now, and I'm hopeful that there are more true ISVs interested in embedding communications into their products. You'll also see the VoIP vendors create deeper developer support for their products to allow companies to do their own application-communications integration.

  • The integration of video: Videoconferencing has had its critics over the years -- and deservedly so. It has been a hassle to set up, has had poor quality, and has not added much to the communications experience. Now that video is being delivered over IP and is integrated into the UC suite, dropping video into a business process is as easy to do as voice. I'm expecting to see a rise in video use to the PC, TV, the mobile phone and new systems like Cisco's Telepresence.

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