This week's Unified Communications show in London provided an interesting cross-section of the industry at this stage in its evolution: Several IP PBXs, lots of consultancies and integrators, a dash of fixed-mobile convergence, plenty of vendors keen to shout about their interoperability with Microsoft's OCS - and more managed or hosted Internet telephony services than you could shake a handset at.
Part of the attraction of the hosted approach is that it enables smaller companies to get access to phone services that would otherwise be too expensive to install. An example is call recording - this is pretty much mandatory in some sectors now, and very useful in others, but has typically been hardware-based.
Offering it instead as part of a managed service also makes it location-independent, says comms provider 8el, which announced its call recording feature at the show. It mean that even homeworkers can toggle call recording on and off once they've logged into the system, said MD Justin Hamilton-Martin. He added that the recordings are then available from anywhere too, via a secure web interface.
The growing popularity of Internet-hosted telephony also reflects our growing willingness to accept other services on-line and via the web - in particular, email - noted Colette Bean, business development director of Velofone, which used the show to launch its push into fixed-mobile convergence.
She added that being Internet-hosted means the company can provide its services anywhere that the user can get a connection. So its Velofone Mobile and Data Roaming services include WiFi roaming, with dual-mode handsets that automatically detect a usable hotspot and switch into IP mode. Leave the hotspot, and they drop back to cellular connectivity.
"A business service has to be simple, effective, and look professional," Bean said. "The important thing is that business users won't change their behaviour to save the company money, so you have to take that into account and make it seamless."
PMR over IP
It's not just ordinary voice telephony that's migrating to IP - other voice tools are headed that way too, including private mobile radio, or PMR.
At least, so said InTechnology, which has built a UK-wide managed push-to-talk (PTT) system. This offers walkie-talkie style communications on a variety of devices, including PCs, PDAs and mobile phones - press a button and speak, and all the others in your group immediately hear your message.
Cellular PTT is big on mobile phones in the US and elsewhere, but hasn't done much here - or rather the UK mobile networks haven't done much with it.
Paul Craig, InTechnology's head of mobile services development, said that the advantage of the IP version is that it's device and network-independent. "It's about immediate communication to a large group, it's one-to-many and instant," he said.
He added that it's a managed service costing £7 a month per user - the only extra cost is the data traffic, plus of course the phone or other device.
It could fulfil typical PMR roles, he suggested - enabling a security guard to alert colleagues, acting as a panic alarm for lone workers, or removing the need for a separate radio in the cab of a delivery lorry which already has other wireless handheld devices - InTechnology is trialling the service with APC Overnight, he said.
Web 2.0 reaches the call centre
While some are predicting that communications will in future be embedded in almost every other software application, it is quite possible that it will go the other way too, with comms tools becoming richer and richer.
That's because the shift towards business-class softphones - catalysed by consumer-grade services such as Skype - has caught the attention of web services and Web 2.0 proponents. One such is software developer Swyx which said it has added web extensions to its SywxWare unified comms system.
The idea is this should make it easy to add CRM-type features to a softphone. For instance, a call comes in, the system looks up the caller's records and then pulls relevant data off the web - mapping information from Google Maps based on the postcode, or share prices for that customer's portfolio, say - and displays it within the softphone.
Last but by no means least, these systems are all about providing better customer service - but what about the people running and operating them, asked unified comms developer Interactive Intelligence. What about the agents who have to deal with outrageous customer demands?
So the company is running a competition, inviting call centre agents and managers to send in their best stories of preposterous, outlandish or bizarre customer behaviour, with a trip for two to Hawaii on offer for the best. If you fancy entering, it's a maximum of 500 words, in English only - and no copying stories off the web, OK?!