Communications convergence is a tricky concept but, whatever it means, users seem to want it, according to a survey carried out for ZDNet.co.uk by research organisation Rhetorik.
The research, released this week, reveals that companies definitely believe that convergence is a good thing, and they even agree, more or less, on what it actually means. So far it seems it's still mostly a plan for the future, though some of the early elements for successful implementation are in place.
In a nutshell, communications have become complex, and convergence is the promise of making them simple. Businesses rely heavily on both voice and data communications, and use both fixed and mobile network services. Staff have desk phones in the office, mobile phones in their pockets, and IP phone services, like Skype, on their laptops. As well as phone calls, they use voicemail, emails and texts, and maybe even IM (instant messaging), blog posts and social networking. And they do all this on PDAs, laptops, desktops and at public internet terminals.
It's all getting a bit much, especially as workers aren't staying in one place and it all has to be mobile. Convergence promises to simplify things, making workers more productive by giving them easier communications and cutting costs by putting services on the same bill. It can also give the flexibility of allowing people to work wherever they are, including at home.
There's a number of technologies to make this happen, but convergence boils down to two major strands, according to Rhetorik: devices that work as both fixed and mobile phones (fixed/mobile convergence), and the ability to get voice and data services on one network, probably with the same device (voice/data convergence).
This begs some questions, of course: which devices, which services and who is providing them? And what technologies are we going to use to converge it all?
To find out what users really expect from convergence, and how far they are towards achieving those goals, the survey looked at people from 371 organisations in the UK, 30 percent of which were large corporations, 13 percent smaller corporations with less than 1,000 people, 29 percent small- or medium-sized businesses with 250 people or less, and 23 percent SOHO (small office, home office) outfits with 10 people or less.
Companies know what they want
"Encouragingly, respondents were quite knowledgeable in this area," says Rick Paskins, managing director of Rhetorik. People had a good grasp of what convergence is all about, with a majority picking up on three definitions of convergence: putting voice and data on the same mobile network, integrating fixed line and mobile services, and getting voice and data on one mobile handset.
However, in general, bigger companies are better informed about what convergence can deliver. Small companies don't have so many dedicated IT people, and quite a high number of SOHO businesses (15 percent) didn't know about convergence at all.
But who's doing it?
Not too many people are doing it in practice, but there's a high proportion using the nuts and bolts — the first level of tools that might lead to convergence, including things such as Wi-Fi networks and data-ready mobile devices. There are also a large number of companies that say they are planning to adopt convergence, and this marries up nicely with predictions of big growth in converged technologies.
Of the two kinds of convergence, fixed/mobile convergence in the office is hardest to achieve. It involves persuading a mobile phone to double up as an office phone, and usually, but not always, that needs a dual-mode handset that can handle both the office Wi-Fi and cellular GSM and 3G networks on the road. It also needs an office phone system that can route phone calls to the mobile over the office Wi-Fi, and that means an IP PBX in practice.
Dual-mode phones are getting more common, but they are still expensive and fiddly to use. So it's no surprise to find less than one-fifth of respondents reported a high degree of fixed/mobile convergence. That figure doesn't vary much by the size of the company but, as you would expect, companies with more mobile workers are more likely to use fixed/mobile convergence.
On the road, mobile convergence of voice and data is an easier prospect. All you have to do to get going on this sort of convergence is to start using mobile email — or, if your IT department is adventurous, access your company's stock or CRM systems from your mobile. By the strict terms of the definition...