Corporate communications are entering a new phase. Instead of phone numbers being associated with devices, they will be associated with people. As companies have moved to embrace IP communications, so too have workers embraced ever more sophisticated digital devices. A year ago, dual-mode phones capable of connecting to cellular as well as running VoIP [voice over internet protocol] over wireless data networks were promising major improvements in corporate communications. Now newer, smarter phones, capable of not only connecting to any network but even discerning coverage and cost differences, are heralding smarter solutions.
"Once you get into that sort of environment the issue of convenience for everybody is a whole different kettle of fish," says Bruce McCabe, director of S2 Intelligence.
Driving it all is massive investment in software development for IP or internet-based applications. Increasingly it is software, rather than the device or network that is at the heart of companies' communications strategies.
"These days, companies can advertise one physical number and have multiple devices ringing: the desktop phone, mobile phone, home phone," says Adam Radford, consulting systems architect with Cisco Systems. "It's up to me as the recipient as to how I receive that call."
A recently announced partnership between mobile carrier 3 and VoIP provider Skype, marked a significant point of convergence on the supplier side for communications. While phone companies have typically been very wary, if not totally afraid, of VoIP, here was 3 out in the market openly embracing it.
"The bigger operators, such as Vodafone, T-Mobile and Orange, have all taken flak recently for alleged hostility towards customers using VoIP on their networks," Ovum principal analyst John Delaney says of the announcement.
"Now here comes 3, not only encouraging its customers to use VoIP, but bending over backwards to make it easy for them."
Skype and 3 took their relationship a step further last month by announcing the fully integrated 3 Skypephone that allows free calls and messaging between Skype users, and greatly reduced call charges elsewhere.
The general manager of business sales with 3 Australia, Michael Cheshire, says the announcement demonstrates the degree to which voice is becoming even more commoditised.
"With the advent of VoIP we're seeing voice competitiveness and the requirement for voice value is increasing," he says. "We're heading to a more competitive marketplace with voice."
Cheshire says 3 is being approached increasingly by larger customers wanting data rather than voice, and that demand for the company's $29 a month 1 gigabyte data plan has tripled since starting just over a year ago.
Australian design company Photobition recently subscribed to the service and reports significant productivity improvements. The company creates large visual presentations for high-profile companies, which means a lot of moving between locations and liaising with clients about what works and what doesn't.
Managing director Fredrik Uden says that while the company is obviously saving money on phone calls by using Skype, these savings pale next to the value of the applications themselves.
"It's difficult to put money next to speed; it's about convenience and getting things to work well," he says.
Now using Skype over 3's 3G network, staff are able to take and transfer images immediately and discuss them at the same time. And because the service is global, staff enjoy the same functionality anywhere in the world.
McCabe predicts that in the next few years, the phone will be front and centre of corporate communications. He says that by 2015 they will have around 1 terabyte of storage capacity on board. "They will be a full camera and video replacement," he says.
They will also be geospatially aware with GPS [global positioning system] and more sophisticated mapping applications will be standard. Nokia recently paid just over $US8 billion ($8.6 billion) for mapping company Navteq, which has digital maps of nearly 80 countries. The ability to incorporate this information into mobile phones has obvious appeal to industries such as real estate, retail and resources.
McCabe predicts that "knowledge" workers will be required to provide their own mobile devices within the next few years.
"The phone will become a very powerful commercial and personal instrument," he says. "Inevitably, employers will have to rethink that entire thing."
Radford says the challenge of converged communications is only increasing for organisations.
"Applications, VoIP, security, mobility - all these silos were previously thought about in isolation," he says. "The challenge now is that all of them are coming together and companies need to think about all the interdependencies."
• Software, rather than the device or network, is at the heart of a company's communications strategy.
• The advent of voice over internet protocol is leading to voice competitiveness.
• It is predicted that by 2015, phones will have around 1 terabyte of storage capacity.
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