Learn from users before deploying VoIP everywhere

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We all know that voice and video over IP networks will do more than reduce toll charges. VoIP must offer new capabilities far beyond those of the current public telephone network.

For example, a health care professional might compose a video mail message to a colleague or patient in a hospital instead of leaving a voice mail. A call placed in Europe may come into a West Coast bureau with a visual cue indicating that, though the called party's day is just beginning, business is closing in Europe.

Imagine a call served by an application that understands who the caller is, the number of previous calls from him or her, all existing business between the parties, the likelihood of closing new business based on the interactivity of the participants in the present session, and the cost of the connection!

Or, a multimedia call might begin with a connection to a cell phone, then convert to a Web conference that incorporates a personal digital assistant for viewing slides or graphics. Finally, the call could culminate with a live videoconference over a common IP-based network for questions and answers.

Converting the old telecommunications network so that it can offer new applications such as these is like refurbishing a 100-year-old Victorian home. One phase will be to tear down the old plaster attached to the lath in the walls. The plaster ends up in a giant heap on the ground before you begin to size and nail up the sheetrock. Meanwhile, those who are thinking ahead take the time, while the walls are bare studs, to upgrade the wiring. In the end, the results are hidden from the occupants, who then probably use the building just as they always did.

Unfortunately, two factors stand in the way of remodeling our telephony infrastructure. First, we don't know what we want to do with the new technologies yet. Second, while we may be ready to experiment, we need systems that are simple to deploy and modify to test our applications.

Breaking out of the routine

To address the first point, companies must conduct behavioral studies on the use of next-generation telecommunications platforms. We need more projects that observe the impact of new models of communications, such as NetMeeting-supported conferences, on teams.

Such studies are likely to remind us how resistant to change humans really are in the absence of clear incentives and benefits. Unfortunately, we won't know the rewards of improved telecommunications until some people take risks.

For IT professionals, deploying new VoIP applications begins with support for innovative users among employees. You need to create a safe environment to deploy test groups. Many companies already have such environments for the introduction of other hardware and software tools: new CAD applications in industrial design or high technology businesses, new financial or accounting packages in the business management group, etc. If your company doesn't currently plan for such pilot projects, you need to create a task force and lobby your leadership.

Once you have approval from management to experiment with communications, find enthusiastic users and provide them with the latest tools, such as new VoIP handsets or microphones and headsets connected to laptops or desktop computers. Connect these off-the-shelf components with an IP PBX from a company such as Dialogic (Intel), Nortel, Cisco, or Lucent.

Your choice of manufacturer and protocols for IP communications solutions will depend on your company's suppliers for other networking and telephony products. Whatever you decide to purchase and deploy for a pilot program is likely to be in small quantities and need not define your long-term strategy. At this stage, what you need is a platform that is stable, extensible, and easy to for you to support as you encourage experimental behavior.

Experimentation of the nature I'm suggesting here may not be considered mission-critical today, but I believe that those who have the opportunity to experiment and watch innovative users will discover the secrets to going beyond toll bypass for VoIP -- and their companies will soon reward them for their research. Think of it as ensuring your job security!

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