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Customers clamor for Net telephony extras

With the advent of VoIP, they're looking for new features that they couldn't get with their old phone systems.

CHICAGO--Makers of Net phone equipment that cater to businesses face an important challenge: creating new things for the phones to do, say executives gathered here for the Supercomm 2004 conference.

The extent to which IBM, Cisco Systems and other key providers of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) equipment can innovate, and the speed with which they do so, will help shape the future of the industry, the executives said during a panel discussion at the conference, which started Monday and runs through Thursday.

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This challenge to produce better applications represents the end of an important initial chapter for VoIP, the technology that digitizes phone calls and sends them over the Internet or private networks, rather than the traditional phone network, which is heavily regulated and taxed. It's taken about a decade, but businesses both large and small are now convinced that the technology works, and they're taking to cheaper VoIP telephone systems in record numbers. It's estimated that up to a fifth of all U.S. businesses either already have such Internet telephony systems or plan to add them.

But now these customers want more than just cheaper phone bills and lower day-to-day maintenance costs. They are clamoring for new features that they couldn't get with their old phone systems, like video conferencing and the ability to click on a PC desktop icon to make a phone call.

"Applications that are non-mainstream is really where the payoff is on this," Goldman Sachs Vice President Chris Fine said.

IBM director Fred Spulecki said that some of the earliest of the new applications revolve around what's known as presence awareness. With this feature, someone connected to a VoIP network can display information for others on the network, explaining the best way to get in touch with him, whether by desk phone, cell phone or pager, for example. This feature is similar to those common among instant-messaging applications, in which icons are used to represent preferred methods of communication. With VoIP, such capabilities are available for consumers but are rarely used by businesses.

"There are 4 million instant messages sent each day at IBM, and a healthy percentage are asking if someone's available for a phone call," Spulecki said. "We are trying to take care of that."

IBM has also begun work to augment conference calling with new features that let those on the call know the name of the person currently speaking and who's next to speak, he added.

Cisco Systems is focusing on video conferencing as the next killer application, said Steve Toteda, senior manager of product marketing at the company. "It's become very important to us," he told an overflow crowd. Making VoIP calls over a wireless local area network is another feature that's being perfected, he said.

"These are becoming a big part of our deployments," he said.