March I 2008

Fredric Morris, Editor-In-Chief, Connect-World
Fredric Morris
Editor-In-Chief
Connect-World

State of the ‘Union’ – seamless or stitched together? Simple systems for simple people

The oft cited vision of seamless communications just isn’t happening. Not yet anyway, and it looks like it will take time to weave all the pieces into a whole, seamless, cloth. No doubt it will come to pass, but the vision sold by operators and equipment vendors is still something of a mirage. Comments by research and consulting groups, notes in industry publications and newspapers and talk at shows all seem to confirm that the glowing forecasts of transparent, automatic, digital union between digital devices and services were premature. Seamless connectivity is growing, but like any child, it is growing in fits and starts and subject to whims and tantrums. It is still far more stitched than seamless.

The technology exists, or at least many pieces of it in the hands of several vendors, but each company has its own idea of what ‘seamless’ means and how to deliver the dreamed of ‘zipless’ telecom experience. Things were simpler in the days of black-only telephones and manual plug-in switchboards.

Today, in addition to the traditional tied-to-the wall desk phone – plain, keyset, feature phones and the like – we’ve got mobile phones, PCs with Skype, instant messaging and email, conferencing with virtual presence, video, PDAs with WiFi and, shortly, WiMAX as well. This should make life simpler, but like so many advances that make life easier, they only make it easier to do more things at once – especially at work – and making it all work is anything but simple. At work? Where’s that? Well, today, at least in theory, it could be just about anywhere, but anyone who travels a lot know that it doesn’t always work that way, especially when time and resources are in short supply.

Have you heard about seamless connectivity? You are at home watching TV. A call comes in, it flashes on the TV screen, you pick up the handset next to you – that happens to be your cellphone linked via WiFi to your landline and your daughter appears on the TV screen. She has locked the keys inside her car. You continue talking on your phone as you go out the door to help her and the line seamlessly switches to your mobile operator’s network. After you find out where she is located, on the way to meet her, you check the Internet using an available WiFi or, soon, WiMAX network. You find a 24/7 automotive locksmith, click on the telephone number and call automatically via the mobile network. On the way back home, a colleague calls from abroad, many time zones away, on Skype; ‘we need some numbers for a meeting in an hour…’

I can go on for quite a while building ever more complicated scenarios. There are an infinite number of ways to link services, devices and application with others, intertwining personal with business uses. The connections, the uses, the possibilities, are almost limitless and I didn’t even include the role mobile video and TV will play or that of NFC (Near Field Communications) including RFIDs. It’s a great picture, a story to warm the heart of any techno-freak, equipment supplier, applications developer, operator or business. Just one problem – that’s not the way it works, at least not yet, in the real world. Despite the hype about seamless connectivity, too many pieces of the puzzle are still missing and some – such as open connectivity via interconnection and clearing hubs between operators and service providers instead of separate one-to-one agreements for roaming, SMS interchange and the like – are still in the works.

We all know how frustrating and counterproductive it is when you can’t reach the right family member, friend or business associate to resolve a problem, to organize an encounter or just to pass on a bit of news that can’t wait or when you can’t access services or information – then and there – when you need it. At home this might cause stress, problems, missed opportunities and misunderstandings. At work, this can cost big bucks. It happens all the time; since there is not much we can do about it today we just chalk it up to experience or overhead. Seamless communications promises to resolve these types of problems.

At the moment, businesses are leading the march through the minefields towards unified communications. Most really big companies will find it takes vision, faith, courage and lots of cash and time to unify a multitude of legacy systems which often do not speak with one another. Seamless, unified communications, in most instances, will call for centralised – and, needless to say, expensive – infrastructure and standardisation of much of the equipment in the field, scattered in offices and installations around the globe and even in the hands and homes of their staff members. It is no wonder that many companies, although they recognise the benefits, are dragging their feet and waiting before committing the resources needed for such an arduous transition. The costs will certainly come down over the next few years, and by planning the normal evolution of internal systems and the normal, programmed, replacement of equipment in the field with seamless connectivity in mind, companies will be able to migrate somewhat more gently into unified communications.

IP-driven systems, especially Voice over IP (VoIP), and the sort of context-based services that only truly large-scale systems can provide mean more than just cheaper communications. Existing systems inflexibly map each service, each user and device to a specific number and a highly specific access scheme. In the future, employees will take a unique system-wide access number with them wherever they are. With this number, they will be accessible, by anyone, wherever they are and conversely will have access to whatever services and information they need, or are authorised to access from any company facility throughout the world. This sort of two-way access to people and resources will tend to further accelerate the trend towards decentralisation, reduce traffic and increase the percentage of home-based workers.

Given their vast experience, infrastructures and technical competence, not to mention their spider-like position at the centre of the communications web, it is no wonder that the large international carriers are all looking at the seamless communications market. Local operators, especially mobile operators, are developing options for the home and SME (small and medium enterprise) markets. A number of the largest network suppliers are planning to offer network management services to support operator and enterprise seamless connectivity programmes.

I wonder, given the number of systems, services, applications and devices – and developers’ unstoppable urge to keep adding bells and whistles – how many of these wonderful seamless features and services we are going to use? I don’t know anyone who uses or knows of all, or even most, of the features on their cell phones or their MS Office applications. Despite dealing with ICTs and complex systems all my life, when it comes to applications I am a simple person. I like sophisticated solutions, but I like them simple. I like solutions that do everything, but hide their complexity behind slick and simple to use interfaces. I know everyone talks about how easy seamless connectivity will be, but based on past experience with mindlessly complex ‘simple’ systems, I am wary. Will the systems be truly seamless, truly super-simple to use systems or will they be overblown, over-hyped, stitched together crazy-quilts with everything you never wanted to use?

Connect-World: Africa & the Middle East (2008) will be published next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are media sponsors such as: ITU Telecom Africa (12-15 May, Cairo), Tunisia Telecom, (Tunisia, 22-25 October), and GSM ME Gulf and North Africa (UAE, 2-3 December).

In addition to our normal global mailing, this issue will also be distributed to a select list of world leaders, to the ranking executives of the world’s largest companies including the Fortune 1000, to government authorities, and to international institutions. This issue will also be available on our website to all other interested readers throughout the world.

The theme of Connect-World: Africa & the Middle East (2008), our coming edition, will be Convergence and data – pushing the limits of the network, pushing the limits of economic and social development.

The growth in data transmission, together with the exponential rise in video and images in general, and the tendency to funnel more through fewer, converged, networks are largely fuelling the need for greater broadband capacity and speed. Not so long ago, we looked to universal telephony as a goal all nations should strive for to meet the needs of their citizens. Today, the growth of the Information Society has raised the bar; universal access to broadband is now the goal – indeed the necessary pre-condition – for digital, economic and social inclusion. This has stretched the resources of governments, service providers, equipment suppliers, businesses and all others involved in the provision and use of broadband.

The need is evident, but there is much to do not only to rollout broadband access and pay for it, but also to make the best use of it to contribute to economic growth and the personal well-being of urban and rural users alike. What should we all be doing, what can be done, not just to provide broadband, but also to use it productively?

Africa and the Middle East 2008 Media Pack; Click here

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