The supposed benefits of IP telephony are changing

In view of the results to date, why are enterprises continuing their migration to IP telephony? The benefits of open telephony systems and interoperability remain a dream. The expected cost reductions and productivity improvements have not always materialized. Also, achieving and maintaining traditional quality of service still present challenges, and security concerns are starting to appear. Not to be dismayed by this, advocates now suggest that the real benefit of IP telephony is increased reliability; however, such a claim raises a number of contentious issues, including the cost of achieving that reliability. Voice was supposed to become just another application of the network, and by this time we should no longer be having discussions like this. So what went wrong? The quick answer is a combination of inertia and hype.

It was hoped that IP telephony would eliminate proprietary telephony systems but this has yet to happen. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) was aimed specifically at providing interoperability and overcoming the competitive hurdles erected by vendors. Unfortunately, it has had limited effect due to painfully slow progress in developing and implementing SIP standards. As a result, enterprises can choose from a number of systems with SIP capability but with some proprietary features. Although this might be considered progress, we have still not reached the envisaged plug-and-play world of open IP telephony, in which terminals are commodities and third-party software is a thriving market. Such limited progress should force enterprises to re-examine their assumptions and expectations.

Much of the hype around IP telephony was, and still is, associated with the real benefits of integrating various forms of real-time and non-real-time communications. Unified communications (UC) has now replaced IP telephony as the hot topic in enterprise communications, and it could be argued that IP telephony is the enabler of UC. But that is little help in building a business case for IP telphony itself, since no one is sure yet what UC will really mean, let alone when it will be available. If voice had truly become “just another application” then UC would already be much closer to realization.

UC is a major battleground for the enterprise customer, involving telephony, e-mail and software vendors. But the rules of engagement are not yet clear and, consequently, competition and cooperation now exist simultaneously between many of the players. Thus, IP telephony is playing a big role in deciding the outcome of a much bigger game. However, we run the risk that UC will hide inefficient competition. Companies might pay for unnecessary complexity in implementing UC because of delayed IP telephony standards. Market forces will eventually decide the outcome, but when? Enterprises should consider what penalties might be paid for going too far down a UC path based on one vendor’s view and a restrictive IP telephony solution. Apart from the vendor lock-in concerns, there are uncertain relationships between vendors to consider. If UC is your killer app from a business-case perspective, you can afford to wait until the dust settles before implementing IP telephony or committing any further to your current solution. There is little doubt that enterprises will continue to migrate to IP telephony, because it’s the only game in town. The questions are: How long will enterprises continue to support proprietary solutions? When will hosted services appear? When will mobile solutions start to impact IP telephony and UC decisions?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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