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The road to Istanbul

Technology often creates as many problems as it solves. The more technologies users have available, the more issues arise. Perhaps Microsoft had that in mind when it prepared its strategy for real-time communication and collaboration, which was unveiled recently--along with plans for a new client--by Anoop Gupta, corporate VP of the Real-Time Collaboration Business Group at Microsoft.

Code-named Istanbul, the new client will be part of Microsoft Office System, the company's family of collaborative business environment tools that now include Live Communications Server (LCS), Live Meeting, as well as Outlook and the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications. To build a true, collaborative business environment in which users can manage instant messaging, conferencing and voice telephony, Microsoft is relying on two standards: SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions).

Istanbul will seamlessly integrate e-mail, instant messaging, video conferencing and telephony services--both POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) and VoIP (Voice Over IP). That market has been heating up for the past few years, and Microsoft was, quite predictably, not the first to the table. Perhaps the first concrete announcement in the space was when Siemens introduced its OpenScape client last year. OpenScape, which leverages Live Communications Server, consolidates access to e-mail, IM, telephony services and conferencing tools, and is a SIP-based open application.

Since then, both Avaya and Nortel Networks have introduced their own SIP-based environments (Converged Communications Server and Multimedia Communication Server respectively), which converge various communications functionality into a single environment. Mitel (mitel.com) has also joined the fray, recently announcing its Signaling and Media Gateway. Based on SIP, XML and CSTA standards, it is designed to allow Istanbul, as well as LCS, to tap into Mitel's IP-based solutions. And to complete the picture, VeriSign has announced its IP Connect suite of services, which will enable true end-to-end VoIP. Most VoIP solutions work within a single organization; to place a phone call to another company, the PSTN (Public Switched Telephony Network) is utilized.

With a SIP-based solution, a user should be able to switch modalities (such as responding to an IM via VoIP) without having to open a different application or create a new connection. This means that such tools are true enablers of collaborative business environments, where the knowledge worker can remain in one overarching environment [a la the Basex One Environment Rule] for all tasks, and tap into embedded applications for IM, telephony and conferencing.

In addition to being able to switch between technologies, users should be able to move from a one-on-one IM session to a full-blown online meeting with whiteboarding and multiple participants. Microsoft promises that users of Istanbul will be able to create ad hoc online meetings without having to reserve Web or phone conference facilities and without requiring participants to access the meeting with a password or other code.

Furthermore, users of the Istanbul client won't necessarily be limited to just others within their organization. In July, Microsoft announced that LCS customers would be able to purchase a license that would permit interoperability between the Microsoft instant messaging environment and users of network-based instant messaging services, specifically those from America Online [AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), aol.com] and Yahoo (Yahoo Messenger, yahoo.com). The Istanbul client will facilitate that communication, and other IM environments may eventually be added. IBM Instant Messaging (nee Lotus Sametime) does offer integration through the client, which allows users to interact with AOL and AIM subscribers; that integration, however, exists only on the client side, which is essentially running a separate protocol to communicate with AIM.

Microsoft, as well as companies such as Siemens and IBM, are recognizing that, rather than simplifying life, the plethora of technologies available to the knowledge worker often make life more complicated. Users are faced with a complexity of communications possibilities--as well as devices that are not necessarily compatible with one another. People waste an inordinate amount of time trying to reach each other, oftentimes via several devices, such as mobile and fixed-line phones, laptops, PDAs and smartphones. Frequently, people try an office telephone number, an e-mail or instant message, then perhaps a mobile telephone number, and sometimes SMS (Short Message Service)--all to locate one person.

Unified messaging tries to allow different technologies to share messages, usually by forwarding a message from, say, a voicemail system to a PC. But the use of SIP and SIMPLE means that information will be exchanged in real time, as the various systems will all use the same Internet-based standards. Vendors of telephony solutions, as well as carriers, are unveiling SIP-based solutions left and right.

Because the systems are network-based, users of SIP-based applications can set up profiles determining how they want to be reached--and who can contact them. The network also enables presence awareness, which allows users to see if colleagues are available via IM, a mobile device or some other means. Users can then initiate a phone call, conference or IM session simply by clicking on an icon. Of course, that gives users a choice of tools--and they need to make the choice both wisely and contextually.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and chief analyst of Basex, e-mail jspira@basex.com.

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