Best known for its voice telephony kit, Avaya is the latest hardware company to declare its intention to become a software company instead.

So what's the reason - is hardware that bad a business to be in? Yes and no, according to Stuart Wells, the Briton who's now the senior VP in charge of Avaya's global communications product line, a business unit that covers anything the company does in comms, whether hard or soft.

Currently that's four main 'components' Wells notes: unified communications; IP telephony; contact centres; and communications-enabled business processes, or CEBP.

He says it's not just a recognition that the value has long since moved away from proprietary hardware into software, and in particular into middleware. He also acknowledges that voice comms can no longer stand alone - and perhaps more importantly, that humans are still an essential part of most business processes.

"A lot can now be done in software, because processors are so fast," he says. "But if you dwell on voice, that's not just what's important to customers. Working with voice in a noisy environment is a speciality of ours, but it won't propel you into a lead."

Instead, he claims Avaya's edge will come from its ability to take the full range of voice transports - IP, ISDN, PSTN, etc - and use IP networks to converge them both with applications and with other communications traffic as well.

"Companies already have applications such as ERP, CRM and so on," he says. "The challenge is how you take real-time communications and put them into those applications to produce presence-enabled and communications-enabled business processes.

"Other companies have the frameworks but not the communications elements, such as conferencing or click-to-dial. And voice is not an isolated medium, nor is video - the chances are you'll want voice-mail too, for example.

"Real-time communications is the core differentiator, but integrated with non-real-time elements. Avaya recognises that real-time communications never went away and can still play a profitable role for corporations."

The need to adapt

So how have the move to software and the drive to collaborate affected Wells's job and Avaya in general?

"It gets you into a high degree of customisation," he says. "It's making sure you are able to increase the skills of your engineers and introduce experts in new fields, such as web services.

"Plus in the software industry you have two important ecosystems - ISVs and developers, so you have to open up your platform to have APIs, SOA (service-oriented architecture), web services - that's CEBP."

If you want to see where convergence is moving fastest - yet with people still central to each process - he says that you only have to look at mobility.

"In the top economies, figures show that 25 to 50 percent of people now work mobile 25 to 50 percent of the time, so mobile connectivity is a route to productivity."

He adds, "The rate of innovation around mobile phones is far outstripping the computer industry," but warns that where the computer industry has had decades to figure out how to price things, the mobile economy is still finding its feet. The telcos in particular are still trying to figure out their role, whether it's purely as a pipe, or perhaps as an outsourcer and service-broker.

The essential human element

But he argues that one thing is certain - the need to integrate the likes of presence and telephony with core business applications recognises that we still need to involve people in business processes.

"Industry has spent a lot of time trying to eliminate humans from business processes and use automated workflows instead, but that's flawed logic - people have a big role to play," he adds.

For example, while it is very expensive, and potentially inefficient too, to have people handling basic queries over the phone, voice portals and IVR (interactive voice response) systems have their limits and at some stage a human has to take over.

At this point, Wells says that an 'expert router' - a collaboration tool that lets you find the subject expert within the organisation who can answer your question - is going to be more efficient than trying to search a library of documents and FAQs, no matter how well the latter is indexed.

"Our unified communications suite integrates - and I mean really integrates with Lotus Notes, Domino and SameTime, as well as with the Microsoft and Adobe collaboration tools," Wells says. "Also, adopting SOA enables you to reach out and share and collaborate with your service providers too."