Convergence means many things to many people. At home, our high-speed internet connections provide instant access to music, films, shopping, gaming and other applications. More recently, this list of applications has expanded to include VoIP, allow-ing consumers to make cheap calls over the internet. Now you can even programme your video/DVD remotely via your mobile.
For businesses, convergence means something different. It is about changing the way in which we work. Taking voice calls as an example, it is about packaging them as data and adding them to the list of mission-critical applications that already run on integrated private, secure and very high-speed networks, rather than on the public internet. Enterprise telephony using an IP network (VoIP) guarantees the levels of quality and service level agreements that we have come to expect from our data services.
But it is in the way that we work, and particularly our ability to work remotely, where enterprise convergence gains momentum.
Business organisations and structures are becoming more fluid. Mobility not just of people but of their virtual working environment is becoming a significant driver for productivity. For businesses and their employees, a converged environment makes location and distance irrelevant.
Today, business IP telephony services - the first step along the convergence path - have reached maturity. Gartner has forecast that IP PBX telephone systems will outsell traditional systems as soon as 2007. Both the technology development and the scalable nature of the infrastructure mean that it has never been simpler or safer to migrate to a centralised IP telephony system. And the market is growing exponentially. Datamonitor reports that 60% of businesses that have already bought into these new systems did so in the past 12 months.
Converged services have a real impact on those who manage them and those who use them. IP telephony is simpler and less costly to manage than traditional systems. You can add or remove users and roll out new features from a central point to any connected device, be that a deskphone, softphone, PDA or mobile. Inter-office calls become free and, of course, you have only one network to manage, not two.
Business users acquire the flexibility to hot-desk, work from home or from a wi-fi hotspot, and can set up video-conferencing on their PC, with access to the same services wherever they are. You have a contact number and profile that is tied to you, not your location. You simply log onto the system and access your e-mails, faxes and voicemails through a single unified inbox, alongside customer records, inventory and any other applications you need.
One other feature sure to make a huge impact on the workplace is 'Presence'.
Today, you might spend hours tracking down colleagues via their mobile, deskphone or e-mail, leaving and retrieving endless voicemails. With Presence, you can check their availability on your computer and see how they want to be contacted at that time. Say you are negotiating a business deal and need to get back to a client with a quick response. Presence enables you to see which of your colleagues is available and strike up an instant conference call. Working collaboratively becomes much quicker and more efficient.
The converged business environment offers opportunities for performance and productivity-enhancing applications that we have yet to conceive.
This morning, you might have switched on your BlackBerry and checked your e-mails before it rang with the first phone call of the day. Tomorrow, as mobile and fixed networks converge, you'll be able to access any application you need from whatever device you like to use, be that a laptop, phone or PDA.