Nortel: Virtual worlds may replace the office

The company believes Web 2.0 tech and virtual worlds will eventually make work something that is done, rather than somewhere people go to

Nortel Networks is looking to the next generation of employees to shape the workplace of tomorrow, and high on its agenda is exploring the role of Web 2.0 technologies and virtual worlds such as Linden Lab's Second Life.

Nortel enterprise chief technology officer Phil Edholm told ZDNet.co.uk sister site silicon.com: "A lot of businesses have set up a virtual presence [in Second Life] and what they find is: what's the point?"

"But, if in fact I could walk up to the virtual support desk and meet the avatar of the virtual support person which would then find somebody in the company that has the right skills to actually help me, that could become of great value," Edholm continued.

Edholm said Nortel has been doing some "demos and trials" with Second Life and contact-centre applications. It has also been working with universities and students to learn how they use communications technology, with the aim of understanding how to translate the likes of thriving online social networks, such as Facebook, into a business environment.

All this is with a view to then building these next-generation functions into the company's products.

Edholm said: "If you get these students coming out of university and they're used to doing their homework with their friends on IM, they're used to Facebook, they're used to virtual worlds — how do you recreate that environment in the work world?"

Edholm said he believes the answer isn't so much about a workplace of the future, but rather about the potential of "true mobile broadband" offered by future 4G networks to mean work becomes thought of as something that is done, not necessarily a place you go to.

Eventually, Edholm predicted, bandwidth across different types of networks will converge so that the type of network being used does not impact on the experience of the user, be it Wi-Fi, cellular or wired. This prediction has been dubbed "Edholm's Law".

In an enterprise context, says Edholm, this would mean "application transparency", or "that all of a sudden, regardless of where I am, I can have the same applications, whether I'm in a nomadic location or not".

Edholm told silicon.com: "In the enterprise world, the big reason [or] driver why we'll go to WiMax is this application transparency... and that has huge impact on business because, all of a sudden, where you do business is no longer constrained."

However, while being able to push work beyond the four walls of the office will offer enterprises new — and potentially lucrative — opportunities for doing business, it does present other challenges. As Edholm pointed out: "As people become less and less tethered to a location, finding the right person at the right time to do a business function is going to become critical."

Bringing communications and applications together to give an intelligent view — including factors such as a person's availability, location and even their velocity — of the status of a disparate workforce will therefore be increasingly important. For instance, Edholm pointed out, if you're driving a car, you probably don't want to get a video call.

Edholm added: "Information and interaction are coming together, and it's not going to be information technology — it's going to be information and interaction technology in a few years."

Gazing a little closer into the future, the next generation of wireless LAN technology — 802.11n — may be able to cut dependency on cables within buildings. Edholm said: "We think we can actually generate by 2010/11, the capacity of building buildings without wires, which means, regardless of where you are within the building, you're going to get the same experience."

Edholm added: "The interesting question is when does the 4G network provide you with the same experience virtually everywhere?"

And that's a question of infrastructure investment, which is, of course, the biggest challenge.

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