Cisco Systems wants to use IP technology to become the biggest vendor in business communications, a US$14 billion market that includes traditional and IP voice equipment, unified messaging, collaboration and conferencing, according to the head of Cisco's Voice Technology Group.

IP (Internet Protocol) telephony is breaking the traditional centralised, vendor-controlled architecture of telephone networks and opening the door to new, distributed communications systems that combine voice with text and video, said Don Proctor, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Voice Technology Group, in a keynote address at the company's Innovation Through Convergence (ITC) Expo 2003 in Santa Clara, California.

The technology ultimately can transform a company's phone system into something like the electrical grid: highly available, exponentially scalable and universally accessible, Proctor said. Just as electricity is available through sockets everywhere, he envisages a communications system that provides the same features anywhere.

In this vision, "You're never farther away from your communications resources -- from your extension -- than the nearest wall jack," he said.

The two-day event that began Wednesday drew Cisco partners showing off applications for converged voice, video and data networks, as well as channel partners and customers. Though only the second ITC Expo under that name, this week's event was actually the third annual such meeting Cisco has put on, said David Tucker, director of marketing for the Voice Technology Group. About 1,000 customers registered for the conference, up from about 200 last year, he said.

Cisco is building the infrastructure for converged communications applications, but it's what the technology can be used for that will sell enterprises on it, Proctor told attendees. He used an analogy from the PC world.

"We're the OS, you are the applications developers," Proctor said.

Cisco used the ITC Expo to unveil its IP Phone 7970G, the company's first phone with a color touchscreen. The company also highlighted enhancements to its telephony software. Starting with the 7970G, Cisco is integrating a JVM (Java virtual machine) into IP phones, which can enrich the user experience on an IP phone just as Java applets have enhanced the Web browsing experience, according to Troy Trenchard, director of product marketing for Cisco's IP Communications group.