The vision of interoperability remains as elusive as ever

The promise of Internet Protocol (IP) to eliminate proprietary telephony systems was a sham. Vendors have simply replaced their underlying technology without giving up proprietary solutions — to the disadvantage of their customers. For example, support for third-party telephones on IP private branch

exchanges (PBXs) is limited, in most cases, to niche wireless devices. Interoperability between equipment from different vendors still seems as elusive as it ever did. And the situation might become worse, if we consider the latest developments in wireless local area networks (WLANs) and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP).

Second-generation WLANs promise to address many of the limitations found in first-generation solutions by centralizing some of the intelligence in the network (for example, in WLAN switches). In order to promote non-proprietary solutions, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is developing a standard protocol between WLAN switches and wireless access points. Unfortunately, the process has not received overwhelming support from vendors, some of whom benefit significantly from delays. It means that many customers will be lured into proprietary solutions for their first major deployments of both WLANs and IP telephony systems. As a result, enterprises could become dependent upon a single vendor for network hardware, software, IP telephony systems, wireless access points and related software and wireless telephones.

SIP, an interoperability standard, was intended to solve this type of problem. Perhaps it will come day but, many of the major vendors, which is to implement SIP in proprietary ways, and there is the slow progress of the IETF in completing the SIP standards. Whether the former is the cause of the latter, or vice versa, is immaterial from the customer’s viewpoint.

SIP might not bring lower priced, interoperable systems for up to six years, according to various estimates. Even with improved progress within the IETF, it is likely that vendors will continue to offer “”enhanced”” implementations, which is another way of saying proprietary solutions. Currently, at least one major vendor is actively promoting more third-party vendor interoperability with its own proprietary systems. While this is better than nothing, enterprises should demand the ability to use any appropriate terminal device from any vendor on any network.

This situation is worse than what happened in the past simply because of convergence. With proprietary systems, convergence of networks implies convergence of the sources of supply. Therefore, the stakes are much higher. Instead of, at worst, being locked into a single but possibly different vendor for each type of network, an enterprise could now become locked into one vendor for the whole thing. This is progress from the successful vendor’s point of view, but not from the customer’s. However, all is not lost. The proprietary approach will be increasingly attacked by other players, including those offering softphones, wireless handsets and hosted telephony services. This is a wonderful opportunity for those players to change the business model for delivering converged solutions.

However, enterprise customers must play their role by demanding non-proprietary solutions and full interoperability, and they must start to reward those vendors that seriously move in that direction.

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