Wi-Fi and VOIP near full convergence

Don't expect revolutionary apps or cellular-provider cooperation anytime soon, though

Don't know what it is, but nine times out of 10 when I somehow get roped into listening to some four-foot stage star with fiery curls and a voice like a prepubescent foghorn belt out "Tomorrow," I get a headache. Maybe I'm too close to the stage. Like I'm too close to tech predictions -- or tenuous segues. I mean, I've just spent several months of man-hours composing verse for the Vista vision, and what's suddenly the biggest story? 2009's Vista's successor, Vienna. (OK, what's with the Vs?)

Methinks if you're still jonesing for tech predictions, we should get off the OS wagon for a bit and look at something else -- at least until we've all had a year or two of Vista crashes so we have enough anecdotes to really fuel a Vienna prediction. So if I put on my swami hat, my favourite prediction predilection for 2007 is VOIP. Gonna see some cool stuff in that department this year.

First off, it's going to be a big year for Wi-Fi and VOIP. I'll have more on this next week, but I'm still buried under embargo this week. But if you want a hint, think dialing your boss right from the plane at the airport and getting yelled at for losing that sale the entire cab ride to the office -- then stepping out of the cab, heading into the office, and having your cell phone switch over to your company's Wi-Fi VOIP network without ever missing a single abusive syllable. Now that's progress!

Who cares about that? Think about the kind of device it would take. A single, smart, portable device capable not just of carrying on a conversation, but also of handling all those advanced VOIP applications folks are developing on Microsoft's Live Communications Server, Exchange, and other stuff. And then think about buying one of those devices for each employee rather than a desk-bound handset and a smart phone.

Now let's look at those applications. See, here I'm a little pessimistic. Sure, we'll see more IP telephony-capable features in stuff like CRM and vertical apps, but I'm doubtful about seeing anything truly revolutionary. At least not this year. This is going to be the year that phones start talking to customer databases, scheduling client appointments, talking to inventory systems ... the basic back-end smorgasbord.

I'm also not to bullish on the cell phone providers helping out. See, if they were good and pious people, they would offer new cell plans aimed at companies moving entirely to single cell handsets for each employees. They'd put reduced pricing in there for high call volumes. Add discounted packages for video conferencing -- especially for services provided by third-party vendors.

But they won't. They're little guys in black hats with handle bar moustaches who tie innocent blonde virgins to train tracks, then scurry away snickering. They're going to offer business cell plans designed to maximize the charges a company might incur if every call came from a cell phone. They'll find ways to delay or even block dual-mode Wi-Fi-capable cell phones for as long as possible. We'll need to see innovation there first from companies not tied too closely to any one cell provider.

And in places where the cell provider and the telecom company are one and the same (i.e. Verizon), they're going to keep playing anti-VOIP games on the traffic side. Certain telecom and cable providers already try to block specific VOIP traffic packets, and the more that technology seeks to rob them of revenue, the more we'll see this happen. Look at it from their perspective: Court battles can take a really long time.

So 2007 is going to be the year we start glimpsing the true potential of fully converged, highly mobile voice and data devices. It's just not going to be the year we really get to use them.

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Oliver Rist

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