From keynote speeches to the show floor to back-hall meeting rooms, ubiquitous wireless broadband was one of the topics receiving the most buzz last week at the Interop networking show in Las Vegas. But fast wireless networks are only the beginning of the sea changes in mobile communications, said many vendors, observers and pundits.

Rather, they say we'll soon live in a world in which the network tells us where one another are located, how best to make contact and, after making contact, support collaboration and access to data from anywhere. The emerging buzz phrase for these capabilities is unified communications.

"That's the future," Cisco Systems' CEO John Chambers said in his keynote. "It's a hard concept to understand, but it goes right to the issue of increased productivity."

The bottom line, Chambers and others said, is just that: the bottom line. Unified communications will speed business processes dramatically, which will result in more responsive companies and significant increases in productivity. But two big questions were also frequently repeated at Interop. First, when will this change occur? Second, is the technology up to the task?

What it will look like

Besides Cisco, Microsoft was another corporate force touting unified communications. Microsoft announced it has expanded the reach of its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007. In particular, the company announced the software now works with the wares of a number of PBX vendors.

"Voice used to be a silo application," Anthony Bawcutt, director of business development at Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, said in an interview. However, he said, products like OCS are moving toward unifying the multiple types of communication now deployed separately by both companies and individual users.

"Say I'm trying to communicate with you," Bawcutt said. "Unified communication is any time, any place, anywhere. Say my preferred mode of communications is e-mail. Today, some people use IM to check on somebody's presence or availability or even send an instant message to say, 'Do you have a minute to talk?'"

However, with unified communications, Bawcutt said, you'll know where the other person is physically located so you can meet in person if they are nearby. The system is also aware of the different modes of communication available to them -- perhaps they are in their car and can only talk via their cell phone or in a remote office near a desk phone. If multiple modes are available, the system knows which way of communicating the person prefers or is most appropriate at any particular time.

The system is also capable of working with other applications so you could, for example, set up a collaboration session on a document you are developing with another person. It also seamlessly will be able to access back-office data. The productivity increase comes from being able to do things more quickly, no matter where other people are located.

Another thing that makes unified communications special, advocates claimed, is that it works over any type of IP network -- as long as there is enough bandwidth, of course -- and can be centrally managed via servers such as Microsoft's OCS. The fact that this is both IP based and server based should make it particularly appealing to companies, Bawcutt said.

"As we move to IP PBXs, the physical box goes away and they become distributed applications," Bawcutt said. "Also, it can hook into Outlook, Word docs, SAP workflow applications; it's just another server managed by the IT department."

End users will like unified communications because it will simplify connectivity for them, he said. Specifically, it offers users single log-on and authentication to access all these various modes of communication. And it changes the whole paradigm of communicating with people.

"We want to get away from the idea that there are multiple ways of reaching you," Bawcutt said. "I should just try to communicate with you, select your name from Outlook, and the communication gets mapped to whatever is available to you."

Besides greater control over communications, Bawcutt cited one other benefit of unified communications that will be particularly appealing to IT managers: cost.

"This moves communications from hardware (such as PBXs) to software, where we can drive the cost out of it," Bawcutt said. "So we drive the cost down and new people are coming into the workplace who were raised on instant messaging. I think there's a perfect storm brewing here."

What's the hold-up?

If this brave new world of unified communications will drive down costs, simplify use and administration of multiple types of communication and increase productivity, why aren't we rushing to the promised land more quickly? Even proponents like Bawcutt say unified communications will take a while to catch on.

"I think 2010 is the inflection point where we'll have 100 million unified communications users," he said.

Speakers at Interop noted several other reasons this will take some time. One important reason is the pervasiveness of legacy equipment such as PBXs. That's why, for instance, Microsoft's big announcement at Interop was that OCS now works with several PBXs from 12 high-visibility vendors. That marriage of new software and older-style PBX technology will start to give legacy systems more capabilities, Bawcutt said.

When will infrastructure be ready?

But perhaps a bigger problem, speakers at two expert sessions at Interop said, is that the networks are still evolving to handle the increased IP traffic -- particularly in terms of voice and video -- that unified communications portends.

Specifically, current-generation Wi-Fi networks, including the first batch of municipal -- or citywide -- networks aren't fast enough and don't provide quality of service to handle a lot of voice and media. 3G networks still are slow and aren't intrinsically IP based but, rather, are packet-switched networks. And next-generation wireless networks, such as mobile WiMax, are just now starting to get off the ground and won't be a factor for more than a year.

"All these things go through growth curves with early adopters and then they take off more broadly," Tom Flak, senior vice president of operations at SOMA Networks, said in a panel discussion on the topic of personal mobile broadband. "But it'll be a number of years before we achieve ubiquity. It's here today, but it's not very widespread, and it's not standardised across operators."

In a session on the future of Wi-Fi, the panellists agreed that Wi-Fi will eventually be more up to the task, particularly as 802.11n catches on both in its current draft form and after ratification of the standard, which is expected late next year. Products based on the draft version of that standard are being widely sold now to consumers, but companies are likely to hold off until the standard is ratified.

"We view the WLAN as a perfect complement to 3G," said panel member Prabodh Varshney, standardisation manager at Nokia. "Voice is very big for us, and voice over Wi-Fi is something most users will appreciate."

But Varshney and other panellists agreed that before that happens widely, not only will 802.11n need to be ratified but related standards -- such as one that will better manage how mobile information, including voice, is handed off from one Wi-Fi access point to another -- must also be adopted. On another wireless broadband front, mobile WiMax is still a new technology that is just now being deployed by a handful of vendors, most notably Sprint Nextel in the US.

As a result, unified communications, while demonstrable now, won't be widely appealing until mobile broadband is more ubiquitous, faster and more reliable, speakers, panellists and booth personnel at Interop all agreed.

But when unified communications does become common, it will not only change how we work, but how much we get done, they promised. Cisco's Chambers said that years ago he predicted that the Internet and now-common ways of communicating would lead to productivity increases of between 3 percent to 5 percent. He said many scoffed at those predictions, but they became true.

"This will be a replay of that first wave," Chambers predicted in his keynote.