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Calls in context

The research by Eric Horvitz's team that is behind the presence handling in Microsoft Communicator (and the whole unified communications thrust from Microsoft) is a lot more compelling than what Microsoft is putting into the next release of products, because it offers finer grain control, integration with applications and more features. It can do that because it only has to work on the internal Microsoft network, not every combiantion of network and phone system out in the real world.

A company to watch in this area might be iotum who is developing a relevance engine with the kind of tools and rules I crave (I love you all, but there are perhaps five people in the world from whom I want a 4am call when I'm in California and few of them are PR people back home on London time, but I don't want to have to remember to turn my phone to silent every night). I'm getting impatient for the services you can add to digital communications.

I wrote about this for the FT recently: VOIP is more than cheap phone calls.

It’s good to do more than talk: why cheap VOIP is just the beginning.

It’s ten to four in the morning. It’s the second day of your business trip to San Francisco and the first time you’ve managed to sleep through the night. And then your mobile phone rings. You have to answer it because you don’t know if it’s a family emergency or a colleague phoning to see if you want to meet for an early lunch back in London – and there’s no way for the caller to know that they’re waking you up. Never mind cheaper phone calls; how much would you pay for a VOIP service that let you choose who could call you out of business hours wherever you are?

For businesses and home users alike, whether you’re looking at replacing your phone line with a VOIP service, making calls from your PC with Skype or getting one of the new handsets from Linksys or Siemens that combine DECT and wireless VOIP, the obvious appeal is saving money. Use Skype at home and you could save 63% on UK calls and 88% on international calls, according to Forrester analyst Lars Godell.

Smart companies have been switching to cheaper IP PABXs or hosted VOIP services for the last five years and a small business can get enterprise level features like call waiting, three-way conferencing, answering services that let callers choose what department or service they need or roaming numbers without paying enterprise telephony prices. Doing that from an interface on your PC (or a hardware VOIP phone with a friendly menu system) means you don’t have to learn the arcane star codes the same features require on office phones – and you don’t have to apologise in advance in case you get it wrong and drop the line.

Once your calls are digital, thinking of VOIP as just a cheaper phone line misses the opportunities for wider savings and better services. When you travel, points out Mike Wagner of Linksys, “your phone just follows you everywhere”. You can take a VOIP handset (or an account with a VOIP software service) anywhere you can get online and make calls at the same price as you would back home.

You can choose what country and area code your VOIP line uses when people phone you; if family or customers will be calling you over the standard telephone network, you can pick an area code that gives them a cheaper call. Many services offer multiple virtual numbers, so even a small business can look as if it has offices in London, Paris and New York.

Many enterprises are missing out on productivity benefits from services today’s students take for granted, claims Stuart Ebden from Fujitsu Services. You can send any kind of data over an IP connection, not just voice, and rather than starting with a voice call and adding extra information, more of us will want a simple way to resort to explaining things out loud if email and instant messenger conversations start going round in circles. Video calls haven’t taken off on 3G phones or with bulky videophones. But IM users are proving to be enthusiast video callers: Windows Live Messenger users clocked up 1.9 billion minutes of video calls in January.

Being able to switch from a text chat to a voice call and back is an advantage of PC-based systems like Skype. You can do the same with Microsoft’s Office Communicator IM client with better security than a public IM system, if you have Live Communication Server and a suitable PBX. You can integrate information from your calendar and address book so that only your boss and your spouse can interrupt your most important meetings while other callers go straight to voicemail. Colleagues can see before they try to phone or forward a call if you’re busy or on holiday. And if you choose, calls to your office line will be automatically redirected to your mobile, again depending on the rules you’ve set. Microsoft has been using similar systems for years internally.

Getting voicemail and email in the same inbox, along with the faxes we can’t quite stop using saves time and makes it easier to forward a phone message to a colleague. If you synchronise your address book to your VOIP handset clicking on a number on screen to call it might not sound that useful, but you can also use ‘click to call’ with numbers from Web pages, emails and documents that you don’t want to add to your address book.

Reducing the cost of provisioning makes call centres affordable for smaller businesses, but you can also give all your employees the benefit of getting more information than just the number of an incoming call. If the caller is a customer or supplier, their details can pop up automatically on screen; if not you can at least get a map showing you which town they’re calling from. When you forward a call to a colleague or add them to a conference call, you can warn them what it’s about. Microsoft’s Neil Laver calls it “adding a subject line to the phone call”.

Not all these services will makes sense for the home user. A single number you can give to all of your friends that automatically reaches you on your home phone or your mobile or whatever device you’re using for VOIP, that you can switch straight to voicemail when you don’t want to be disturbed and that can use a list of who you’re happy to have call you in the middle of the night and who gets sent to voicemail might be the most popular option.

Entertainment is an obvious area, combining gaming and voice chat or letting you send caller ID information to your TV screen. Sandy Aitken of IBM Global Services thinks we’ll want more specialised services for specific occasions; house-hunters could send photographs and video snippets as part of a call, get details of properties nearby for further viewings without going back to the estate agents and be able to see when their lawyer is free to talk to them. If it speeds the process up, he thinks banks might even subsidise it.

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marypcb
Mary Branscombe
Simon & Mary

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