Cash and Burn: Three Generations of Telephony Failures

Despite the best efforts of the communications industry, telephony servers have never been a strategic buy. Most VoIP purchases are made to increase business value rather than transform the enterprise.

David Greenfield

March 15, 2007

3 Min Read
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For at least the past 15 years, PBX vendors have talked about how IP telephony was going to transform business. First, it was telephony-API wars with then AT&T-Novell's TSAPI on one side and Microsoft's TAPI on the other. Both promised a brave new world of telephony control apps. Later there was SIP, which was going to let Web developers create voice applications as easily as they could create Web apps.

And yet today, VoIP sales have little to do with increased business value and nothing to do with transformation of the enterprise. The overwhelming majority purchase VoIP to replace a depreciated PBX. The reality is that despite the best efforts of the communications industry, telephony servers have never been a strategic buy.

So, be more than a bit skeptical when Avaya, Cisco and Nortel talk about "business process transformation" and "communication-enabled processes." These vendors are betting--for the third time--that what we want is for communications systems to become the core of our businesses. They're banking that companies will want their telephony systems to instantly locate, set up and track interactions for resolving pressing manufacturing problems or resolving key customer complaints.

And they're betting big. Early this month, Avaya introduced both an ESB for its IP PBX, dubbed the Communication Enabled Business Process (CEBP), and an event processor. With CEBP, Avaya claims to provide the framework for embedding communications within a business process without requiring detailed telephony knowledge. Application developers can now perform a complex set of telephony services by calling a single high-level Web service. "Notify & Respond," for example, contacts a set of users and uses Web-portal responses or a voice form to trigger additional workflows, while "Find & Call" locates users by trying multiple devices according to the user's preset preferences. Specific events can be monitored through an add-on product, the Event Processor.While Avaya's products are the most overt examples, all the vendors are making plays in this area. This month, Cisco provided a Web services interface in its system for the first time. Siemens had previously announced a similar capability for its HiPath 8000, but has yet to publish its WSDL. Nortel doesn't yet offer a Web service interface for its CS-1000 IP PBX nor its unified communications platform for enterprises, the MCS-5100. Nortel did release an API last month that will let developers tap the unified communications capabilities of the MCS-5100, but it's a low-level interface.

Start-ups, namely Blue Note Networks and Sphere Communications, also see SOA as key to the telephony space. Blue Note in particular has garnered attention by recently releasing its SessionSuite WebCaller, a thin-client application that lets developers easily introduce communications into their business applications. What's more, Sphere and Blue Note expose access to advanced features like presence tracking, while Avaya still restricts developers to core telephony functions, such as placing a call.

These tools may pique customer interest, but most organizations are wary of automation. Just look at how many users in your organization automate simple tasks, like configuring rules to process incoming e-mail. Do you want to risk annoying a senior executive with a phone call or contact that might have been mistriggered by the telephony system? Automation and the incorporation of telephony within the business process will raise questions from executives, but it won't be the charm VoIP vendors are hoping for--third time or not.

David Greenfield is NWC's editor. He has spent 20 years analyzing virtually every networking technology and has consulted to and assisted Fortune 500 enterprises in their technology acquisitions. Write to him at [email protected].

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