posted 10 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 2
Take a sip
Session-initiation protocol promises to enable knowledge workers to access collaborative tools – from instant messaging to videoconferencing – regardless of where they are working or the kind of device they are using. By Jessica Twentyman
When an important business decision needs to be made, there are few things more frustrating than trying to track down a colleague with the most up-to-date knowledge of the customer or project in question, only to find that they are out of the office, not responding to e-mail and, to top it off, their mobile phone is switched off.
They may well be out of contact for perfectly legitimate reasons – but any response is likely to be delayed still further as they are forced, on their return to work, to check numerous applications and devices for messages: e-mail, SMS text messages on mobiles, voicemail on both landlines and mobiles, and so on.
In a recent survey conducted by IT market research company Forrester Research, project delays due to the inability to reach key decision makers occur all too frequently – affecting 27 per cent of the companies surveyed on a weekly basis and over three-quarters (78 per cent) on a quarterly basis. As a result, says Forrester analyst Elizabeth Herrell, these companies “lose productivity, face major project delays and spend unnecessary time on travel”.
The transfer and exchange of corporate knowledge relies heavily on a varied mix of business communications approaches, from traditional communication tools such as the telephone and face-to-face meetings to newer collaboration tools such as e-mail and instant messaging. But, in order to stay connected throughout the business day, knowledge workers are forced to manage multiple devices and applications.
The evidence for that is clear: briefcases bulging with mobile phones, laptops, Blackberries, personal digital assistants and so on, and business cards that list multiple physical and electronic addresses and numerous contact number options.
In a business environment where increasing numbers of knowledge workers spend very little of their working life at a single office location, but rather on the road, at clients’ premises or working from home, that is clearly not a desirable situation.
Not only that, but knowledge workers often need to use a combination of these communications mechanisms to resolve individual issues: for example, a project delay might require project managers to reschedule meetings using calendaring applications, revise and agree new deadlines by e-mail, and give up-to-the-minute progress reports by instant messaging.
What such workers need, says Herrell, are “right-time communications” that blend these applications so that they can be used in a single collaborative session by users in different locations using the device of their choice.
The answer to that, say many industry watchers, has come in the form of a relatively new communications protocol, session-initiation protocol (SIP), which promises to provide enterprise developers with a more accessible tool for building bridges between the worlds of data and telecommunications.
Essentially, SIP merges IP traffic from different sources to one address, which can be used by whatever device individuals choose to access it from. The result: users are no longer tied to any one location, device or form of communication.
Because it is so flexible, SIP’s potential is vast. It may be used for a task as simple as redirecting a phone call from a desktop handset to a SIP-enabled mobile phone, or as complex as merging different IP traffic streams (such as data, voice and video) to create a ‘virtual conference room’ involving multiple participants in numerous discrete locations.
Not only does SIP create the flexibility to mix and match messaging formats within a single session, it also enables users to access them using different devices: voicemail, for example, can be retrieved via an e-mail client or instant messages via a mobile phone.
Using SIP, companies have a tool which will allow them to create communications services that follow individual users, and which are automatically modulated to suit the client device they happen to be using, and the quality of the service that it is attached to. For early adopters of SIP, this is often the most compelling reason for doing so.
“With SIP, the underlying network becomes a commodity that allows SIP sessions across a range of intelligent endpoints. This capability paves the way for several innovative applications not previously available for business communications. Although many applications are still in the development of early deployment states, SIP offers much potential for expanding worker’s access to information – and to each other – resulting in higher employee productivity,” says Herrell.
Not only that, but a SIP-enabled communications infrastructure knows when an individual is available to be contacted, and gives users more control over when, where and how they may be contacted by colleagues, as well as over how they retrieve messages. For instance, someone using a mobile phone may be a sent a text alert to check their e-mail, but can choose to receive the e-mail directly if they are registered as using a laptop connected to the internet over a broadband connection.
“Some workers feel that they are not information workers but interrupted workers, and express concern that allowing others to reach them in real-time will slow down work even more,” admits Herrell of Forrester. “However, the reality is that right-time communications gives workers the ability to set rules and direct contacts to asynchronous communication modes when appropriate,” she points out.
This is often referred to as ‘presence awareness’, a concept with which users of instant-messaging services from the likes of AOL and Microsoft (whose MSN Messenger software already incorporates SIP) are already familiar.
It basically enables them to see which of their regular correspondents is presently online, and whether or not they are available to receive an instant message.
In the context of a private enterprise network or wider public network service, individual users are provided with a SIP address which is administered by a SIP server. As users log on to the internet from different locations, the SIP server not only tracks their presence, but also the nature of the connection and terminal device they are using. The SIP server can then arbitrate the best way of contacting a user, according to the type of information being sent, their preferred receiving device, and the quality of service available to them.
“It’s about the systems understanding and tracking – in a purely positive way – the location of people and what state of availability they are in,” says Doug Lauder, director of technology and architecture at Genesys Conferencing. “So, for example, I could say that I’m writing a report and don’t want any calls but I’m happy to receive e-mails,” he explains.
Because SIP is a ‘thin’ protocol, it can be implemented in virtually any kind of device. This gives it the potential to become a ubiquitous feature of personal-communications devices. It is already commonplace on PCs and laptops, where it is part of the instant-messaging service embedded in Windows XP, and it is set become a standard feature of 3G telephone handsets.
With that evolution, business are entering an era of “converged communications”, according to Roger Jones, EMEA business development manager at telecoms equipment giant Avaya. “Everything from e-mail and SMS to mobile, soft phone, conferencing and so on will be consolidated for the user in a single channel behind a single address or identity,” he says.
That will revolutionise knowledge working at many companies, according to Forrester’s Herrell. In Forrester’s survey, she points out, sixty per cent of respondents indicated that they would save at least two minutes per event by having text messages automatically routed to telephones and mobiles if a co-worker was not responding to their electronic messages.
This, she points out, represents significant savings for companies when spread across knowledge worker headcounts. “For example, if a worker saves four minutes per event, three times a day, as a result of not having to spend time to locate co-workers, this adds one hour per week for each knowledge worker to spend on more productive projects,” she says.
But the implications of SIP are far wider, she adds: “As the boundaries for communication and collaboration technologies begin to blur, users will be able to more quickly adopt newer technologies that facilitate real-time communications with rich media content. That will allow them to communicate more effectively and to come to decisions more quickly across time zones. SIP’s value for business is that it can significantly improve how business communicates today – and will continue to evolve and support even greater functionality in the future.”