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Incremental Improvements

When I wrote on No Jitter last week about cell phones being invisible to presence, I characterized this state of affairs as a bug. But maybe it's really a feature. In any event, is it a critical issue?To review, Unified Communications presence engines are supposed to tell everyone who needs to know whether or not you're on the phone. But if you call someone from your cell phone via the mobile operator's network, your company's presence engine can't see that call and nobody knows you're on the cell phone.

Hmmm...Nobody knows you're on the cell phone. Or if you're on the cell phone...

I had an interesting conversation at Lotusphere with John Beck, who's in product management for messaging and collaboration within Lotus. We discussed mobility, and John talked up some of the new BlackBerry integrations that IBM Lotus was touting the week of the event. His emphasis -- and it was repeated by others throughout the week -- was that mobility/UC integration was more about work-life integration than it was about road warriors, as such. In the IBM Lotus world, pretty much any knowledge worker is a candidate for mobile integration.

The scenario that all the Lotus people were talking about was one where you're on a conference call that runs over time, and you're stuck at 5:30 still on this call, and you want to get out of the office. The Sametime-RIM integration would let you take that conference call on the road fairly seamlessly.

It's similar, in principle if not technology, to the fixed-mobile convergence scenario we've become familiar with -- the infrastructure-level scenario where you're on a voice over Wi-Fi call within your office and you leave the building and the call transitions seamlessly to cellular. Different technical issue, but same basic scenario -- you're trying to cross some network or application (or device) boundary without interruption to your session.

And I still wonder, in the grand scheme of things, how frequently this occurs or how much of a drain on productivity it represents.

The larger issue that John Beck and his Lotus colleagues discussed was the idea, which underlies Lotus Sametime Unified Telephony, that Unified Communications means people contact (or try to contact) you, not a device that you're sitting next to or absent from. I think the scenarios about boundary-crossing are less illustrative of specific situations you're likely to encounter, and are more about demonstrating what it means to live in this world where you, not your device, are the communications endpoint. I mean, that's what you want, right: If you're mobile, you want to come and go as you please, and do whatever kind of work you need to do at the given moment.

The question isn't whether this is a good idea, or even whether it's a bad idea because you want to be able to escape scrutiny. The question is how much the enterprise should be willing to pay to make it happen. If we're not there yet, we're moving closer to a new environment, one where enterprise decision-makers have to look at their end users and say: I'm not going to give these people every conceivable device and means of connectivity - what does this person or class of worker need? If they're primarily mobile, do we eliminate their desk phone -- even if they do spend some time at a desk? If they spend a lot of time crossing fixed-mobile or private-public network borders, do we track that device across the different networks, or do we make do with less than ideal connectivity?

This also is the gist of Tom Nolle's most recent column on No Jitter. Tom asks an important question:

Could we be building layers of technology and complexity and abstraction to the point where the purpose of the process -- provable productivity gains on a scale to justify cost -- has been lost? For the last 20 years, networking has been an 'accepted benefit,' something you did because it was the right thing to do. The 'rightness' was due to the fact that for a long period of time, business was 'under-connected,' so the simple validation we had was not only sufficient to win buyers, it was valid. We are not in that world any longer, and we're never going back to it.

There are some real cost justifications around IP telephony and Unified Communications, but they center around international calling, travel avoidance and the like -- in other words, those areas where we're still "under-connected," in Tom Nolle's phrase. Incremental improvements like these around mobility may turn out to be just icing on the cake.Real cost justifications around IP telephony and Unified Communications center around international calling, travel avoidance and the like.