If there is one thing you can count on when it comes to business technology, it’s this: whatever technology you use now will be enhanced or supplanted by some new, more powerful technology. It happened when the telephone replaced the telegraph and when the desktop computer succeeded the electric typewriter – itself a technological enhancement of the Underwoods, Remingtons and Royals of yore.And it is happening now. Virtually any company that isn’t using the hot new business technologies that emerged or broke out in the last year or so – voice over IP (VoIP), radio-frequency identification (RFID), geographical information systems (GIS), collaboration systems and wireless networking – will soon. If it isn’t, it probably won’t be in business.
Voice over IP. “VoIP isn’t emerging, it’s here,” says Elspeth Murray, Queen’s University business professor and head of the school’s Centre for Business Ventures. “Companies are saying, ‘I’m saving cash on long distance with the same voice quality I had with traditional telephony.’”
VoIP has arrived because it promises to solve so many of telephony’s nagging shortcomings. It simplifies networking by letting companies combine voice and data traffic on one infrastructure. It enables all kinds of computer-telephony integration (CTI) applications that were beyond the capacity of traditional private branch exchanges (PBXs). Most of all, VoIP promises cost savings by circumventing long-distance tolls.
In fact, VoIP has been around for a while, but it only became ready for prime time with the convergence of some key preconditions. “In 1996, VoIP was technically feasible, but you were in a Cisco office if you had it at all,” Murray says. “We needed the bandwidth and infrastructure to make it ubiquitous. But now there’s so much cheap bandwidth available, it has almost become a no-brainer.”
Combine that with the fact that most companies last upgraded their old-style PBXes seven or eight years ago for Y2K compliance and are thus ready for the next upgrade anyway, and VoIP seems poised to take off. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is where telephony is headed,” Murray says.
RFID. Of all the technologies that came out of the blue in the last year or so, RFID is probably the most talked about. The basic technology has been around since it was used to identify allied aircraft over Europe during World War II, but it has only been its application to the supply chain that has put those four initials on every businessman’s lips.
RFID promises to allow companies to track inventory throughout the supply chain using a small radio identification tag. All you have to do to identify a box in a warehouse or truck is run it past a scanner in someone’s hand, built into a warehouse ceiling or installed in a truck. RFID means never having to lose track of a box.
It’s all heady stuff, but it’s still more of a promise than reality. “There’s definitely more sizzle than steak right now,” says IDC Canada chief research officer Denis Vance. “In Canada, RFID is unquestionably a technology waiting to happen.”
But it will. In fact, IDC Canada has predicted that a major Canadian company would announce a RFID initiative before the end of 2005, forcing all of its partners to jump in the technological conga line.
“It’s already here,” Murray says, pointing out that the technology has already become ubiquitous is livestock farming and in automatic toll passes in the United States. “There’s the issue that you might have to do it because you’re a Wal-Mart or Best Buy supplier – and a lot of Canadian companies are. But you can certainly make the business case for it, with a more transparent supply chain, and the holy grail, of course, is at the unit level. Being able to track individual products as they enter and leave a store is a dream come true for retailers.”
As the price of the tags themselves comes down – the average cost of a passive RFID tag is five cents today, down from a quarter a year ago – it has become a question of when, not if. “There are still some standards issues to work out with the scanners,” Vance says. “But it’s inevitable.”
GIS. Geographic information systems are a kind of corollary to RFID. If RFID can tell you which box is in which truck, GIS can tell you where the truck is and how to get it to its destination. “They go hand-in-glove,” Vance says. “GIS has become pervasive, but it has been a quiet revolution in the transport industry. It has been happening because it works.”
GIS is a collection of related technologies. At the heart of it is the global positioning system (GPS), which uses satellites to establish the coordinates of a vehicle, or asset. But those coordinates are useless until you combine them with road information and geographical topography. GIS takes the GPS data, combines it with a database of map information and presents a driver, for example, with everything he needs to know.
In effect, GIS means never having to ask directions.
“GIS and its applications are part of the logistics environment now,” Vance says. “It’s here to stay and it will grow as supply chain demands heat up. If you are in transportation and you’re not using it now, or soon, you will be at a disadvantage.”
Collaboration. Internetworking has been about collaboration since the beginning. But the reality of pervasive, always-on collaboration tools has only emerged in the last couple of years.
“It is happening,” Vance says. “At a very basic level, Microsoft added instant messaging and collaboration tools to its hosted Exchange solution for SMBs.”
Collaboration is a wide set of technologies, ranging from instant messaging to videoconferencing. Some of those have arrived, some have not, Murray says. “What’s the holy grail of collaboration?” she asks. “Maybe we take it for granted, but maybe it’s just not quite there, yet. On a scale of one to 10, I’d say we’re at five.” Nevertheless, some pieces are in place. VoIP conferencing bridges are becoming more common and easier to deploy, and SMB-focused videoconferencing managed services are springing up all over.
“I don’t think it’s a technology issue anymore,” Murray says. “It’s a make-the-case issue. More importantly, it could be a generational thing: How do you define ‘high-quality interaction’ these days?”
Wireless. Wireless networking has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost an afterthought these days. “It’s not an emerging technology anymore,” Murray says. “The only people who talk about it in those terms anymore are over 40.” The thing about wireless is that it pervades everything, from the wireless local area network (WLAN) to BlackBerries and WiFi hotspots at the coffee shop of your choice. The point is that is has become so pervasive that, if you’re not using it now, you had better hop to it. Wireless – data and voice, in the LAN and on the road – has become one of those technologies that everyone depends on.
“It’s like the telephone for our parents’ generation,” Murray says. “You pick up the receiver, and it’s on. The younger generation gets it – they say ‘duh.’ They say ‘of course; I have my cell phone and my BlackBerry and my laptop, and I expect any time, anywhere access.’”

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