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AIA

The promise of unified communications

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4th Jun 2007
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For more than half a century, the portable, two-way transmitter has a stable of science fiction. Cartoon detective Dick Tracy has carried such a device on his wrist since the late 1940s and where would Captains Kirk and Picard be now without their personal digital assistants?

Thanks to astounding technological developments, these implausible dreams have come true. Mobile technologies now available on the high street surpass the imaginings of the 20th century's wildest sci-fi visionaries.

Access to the internet, office systems and email while on the move has become commonplace. Wireless hotspots are now available in planes, trains and upmarket coffee bars. Or more dependable internet access could be yours for the cost of a 3G or broadband modem card that fits into the PCMCIA slot in your laptop.

Once you have a net connection, virtual private networks (VPNs) make it possible for you to log on to your normal office network, so you don't have to worry about leaving important files behind and can hook in customers and trusted partners.

Being able to access emails and business applications over the net is certainly a boon for remote workers, but it doesn't quite tackle all their communication and information-sharing problems. Synchronising data so the information on your remote device stays consistent with that held on company networks and your other hardware can be a serious pain. So is the need to monitor different services for incoming communications: email, instant messages, mobile and fixed telephone services, and SMS text.

Unified communications - the cure for information overload?
This summer, Microsoft is poised to launch the Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, which in tandem with Exchange Server 2007 represents Microsoft's big attempt to introduce a unified communications platform that will standardise and manage all the different communication strands within a single environment.

IBM is trying to do the same thing with Lotus Notes, while BT and mobile operators also want to position themselves in a similar way at the hub of business communications.

Microsoft already uses this technology internally, explains unified communications product manager Mark Deakin. This is how it works. Fed by Exchange Server, the user's Outlook in-box is the repository for any email, text or voice messages directed to that recipient.

As you move around, you notify the Outlook Office Communicator module where you are, your availability to take calls and emails, and preferred delivery format. Exchange will then transfer incoming instant messages, emails and voice calls to the appropriate telephone extension or email/IM client device.

"With voice access, I can even get hold of Outlook via a normal telephone," Deakin says. "When I dial in, it goes straight through to Exchange, which asks me to type in an ID and PIN to authenticate myself.

"It then tells me over the phone how many new emails, voice mails and messages I've got and reads back any scheduled appointments. If I'm running late for one of the appointments, I can go into the Calendar and get it to send notification to the other participants that I'm going to be 15mins late. As long as you have some sort of connection, you can still get everything in Outlook. That's what unified messaging does."

What does unified communications actually mean?
Deakin's description summarises two elements of unified communications - personal message management, and presence. Message management brings all the incoming contacts into one storage area, and gives users the ability to control how they receive their messages.

The second element, presence, is about keeping track of where you are so that callers and messages can reach you. "If you phone me at my desk and I'm there, the desk extension will ring," says Deakin. "If you ring my desk and I'm away, it will divert the call to my mobile."

The third element is made up of collaboration tools that let you share what you see on your screen and interact with other users - applications such as Microsoft's Live Meeting, Citrix GoToMeeting and WebEx, which was recently acquired by networking equipment giant Cisco.

Microsoft's Deakin also explains that smarter use of web publishing and distribution tools can lessen reliance on email. "One of the things many finance managers do is mail around reports. They have two options: they can either send a 10Mb spreadsheet to everyone, or make it available using a portal tool like Microsoft SharePoint Server. As soon as it's uploaded, all the recipients get notified. It avoids using email as a file transfer mechanism."

The buzzword floating around all of these developments is "convergence". Computers are merging with mobile phones into hybrid smartphones and PDAs, and the boundaries between telecoms and computer networking providers is blurring. With the arrival of web services such as SharePoint, it's getting very difficult to tell where the communication infrastructure ends and the business application architecture starts.

Blurry technological boundaries may be conceptually messy, but innovation has always thrived on the fringes. When location and delivery data can be beamed back to a distribution, invoicing and accounting application, it becomes possible for a company such as SEL Imperial Car Panels and Lamps to run a real-time delivery administration system for a very low cost. Or salespeople on the road can close deals and book the orders on the spot.

Identifying and managing the risks
That's the sales pitch. But if you can get access so easily to your corporate data - won't it be just as easy for bad guys to do so as well? If you are going to install a more complex computing infrastructure, you need to take appropriate precautions.

How often have you read stories about laptops containing secret intelligence or military files being stolen from officials' cars? It happens even more frequently for ordinary businesses, but doesn't make the headlines.

Any Windows WiFi user will also be familiar with the regular notifications in built-up areas that unsecured wireless networks are available for connection. Even if they are secured, researchers at the Technische Universität Darmstadt recently demonstrated that they could obtain access to networks using the current Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) standard within two minutes.

If protecting your company data is important, you should start considering whether it's time to abandon 1-3 year old WiFi routers and replace them ones that support the more rigourous Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) encryption standard, suggested Stewart Twynham of IT consultancy Bawden Quinn.

As Twynham suggests, the elements you add to enable your IT infrastructure to support remote working will demand the most attention. But added access will also ripple through to expose other vulnerabilities your operation. For example, will you need to consider encrypting the data you hold on your central network and on remote devices?

Many of these aspects are covered in more detail by Twynham in his information security expert guide series.

The culture shift - is there any escape?
Twynham and other experts point out that the most important element of any technology system is the people who will use it. As well as assessing the potential benefits against the risks, do not neglect the training that will be necessary to ensure that your systems are secure, and that they boost rather than diminish your organisational efficiency.

Always-on internet connections, unified messaging and presence detection can make it difficult to escape the digital treadmill. If mobile workers are always expected to be on call, they may find it difficult to switch off and the resulting stress could diminish their overall productivity.

More worrying, perhaps, is the "CrackBerry" phenomenon, where workers become addicted to their mobile communications devices. In April 2007, when US BlackBerry users lost their web and email connections for 10 hours, many of them complained of frustration and worried that their workplaces would grind to a halt without their input. Most of the affected businesses survived the disruption, even if the remote executives were close to breakdown, notes psychology Professor Graham Jones of performance development consultancy Lane4.

"The virtual office has indeed revolutionised the way we do business, but what about the unwanted side effects when the line between business and pleasure becomes blurred? Managers may have the luxury of being able to manage their workload whenever and wherever, but increasingly they’re losing their grip on a healthy work/life balance," says Jones.

His advice is that it's better to counteract the myth of irreplaceability by getting managers to realise the importance of delegation and teamwork.

Jones continues: "We often come across workforces who, on realising they don’t have their boss on hand to deal with any queries or problems, seize up with fright." The mobile manager needs to set a good example by leaving work on time and taking their allotted holidays - and to ensure colleagues are properly briefed and supplied with effective hand-over notes, he says.

"Your employees will thrive when they realise the results they can achieve in your absence when they think like a team."

AccountingWEB member Trevor Green logged in from a beach in Florida to post a contrasting view in response to Kevin Salter's remote working guide. Technology that enables people to work 24/7 does not necessarily tie them to their desks, he argued, "It allows us to decide when to work. I can work from home and go for a walk in the country or sit in the garden on a weekday in the knowledge that I can respond if required.

"I can also work at 4am if I cannot sleep. It also allows me to take an extra holiday which I otherwise could not justify, but keep in touch to give guidance to my staff and answer important emails… We all have different lifestyles and if remote working improves life, then it must be good."

Where Green is self-employed, Mark Deakin has lived the remote life for several years as a Microsoft employee. He accepts that the technology blurs the line between home and work, "but it doesn't bother me so much. If people email me at home, I can respond. It encroaches, but I'm more able to work when I want," he says.

"If I'm sitting on a train going into London, I don't want to feel disconnected. My smartphone becomes the terminal and I have my presence there. The younger generation very much expects that."

With the speed of change moving so quickly, who knows what breakthroughs are about to come over the horizon? Maybe the next thing will even be able to teleport you back to your starship.

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By onesys
06th Jan 2010 15:38

Unified Communications Home Working and Snow

Looking out over a snow-covered landscape 60 miles from the office, I fully agree that this type of technology has transformed my working and personal life.

I'm employed by a business software company and we practice what we preach. Early adoption of affordable hardware and software has benefited us greatly. As an added personal and environmental bonus, home working has taken a car off the road that used to do 20,000 miles per year. Many of you could save a small fortune.

All it takes is a small investment (benefits all), a few controls and a little discipline.

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