For many small and midsize businesses, survival is the goal for 2009. In these difficult times, the notion of spending on novel networking products or services will be a hard sell. Yet, ignoring network infrastructure can cripple a business. So when considering the network technology trends for the new year, it's important to focus on investments that will build upon recently deployed technologies and provide clear cut, bottom line savings. These three are likely candidates:
1. Continued Uptick in VoIP and Unified Communications Deployments
Recently, VoIP technology has proven that it is reliable and scalable, so a growing number of organizations now feel comfortable deploying it. Lower cost is its main attraction. Traditionally, deploying and maintaining a PBX or a key system was an arduous task. These devices were based on old hardware and used proprietary programming interfaces. Rather than empowering users to make simple changes, such as change their extension, such chores fell to overburdened IT departments.
VoIP systems cut costs in a number of ways. In many cases, their per extension prices are lower than those of PBXs or key systems. Also, VoIP switches rely on commodity hardware, such as PCs or Linux systems, so they are easy to configure and troubleshoot. Rather than closed architectures, these devices rely on standard interfaces. In fact, one area that has recently received a lot of attention is the use of open source VoIP systems. In addition, VoIP devices also have simple, intuitive user interfaces, so employees can often make simple system configuration changes.
Voice systems have typically had long life cycles, five to seven years, so as PBX and key systems come to the end of theirs, a growing number of small and midsize businesses have been replacing them with VoIP switches. Now that many organizations have deployed VoIP switches, they want to take advantage of them. Because they have an IP foundation, these systems are able to support integrated data, voice, and video applications. Unified communications packages integrate items, such as voice mail, e-mail, and instant messaging, into a single system. Consequently, it becomes likely that employees will receive important messages in a timely manner. Web and video conferencing are other applications riding the surge in VoIP deployments.
With vendors fighting for survival, pricing for these products has been dropping, and increasingly, they have been packaged with other components and applications. Thus, it has become simpler for small and midsize companies to justify their deployment.
2. New Mobility Applications
Many firms have implemented wireless technology, such as 3G cellular data networks and Wi-Fi, so their employees now operate in a flexible workplace where they can access information at just about any time and from just about any place. With this new infrastructure now in place, companies are looking to layer applications on top and maximize use of their wireless networks.
Increasingly, companies are running voice over IP (VoIP) over wireless connections. Dual mode cell phones enable users to continue their conversations as they move from an outside cellular service to an internal Wi-Fi network. The bundling means employees no longer have to carry a desktop phone and a cell phone, so companies can reduce their telecommunications equipment costs. Also, maintenance becomes simpler because there are fewer devices to oversee.
New mobile applications are emerging. Real-time location services (RTLS) enable companies to track items, such as their inventory, via wireless connections. Here organizations are using wireless connections to manage a wide range of devices. Health care provides can monitor use of portable X-ray machines, and retailers can track equipment or supplies in their warehouses. In 2009, more of these novel applications are expected to move from vendors' research labs into small and midsize businesses.
3. Low Priced Smartphones
The high end of the cell phone market has attracted the most attention because it provides vendors with the highest profit margins. Companies such as Nokia, Microsoft, Palm, and RIM have made hefty profits selling smartphones priced from $500 to $700. However, moving forward, vendors will be hard-pressed to maintain such high prices.
One reason is the intense competition in the smartphone space. The traditional stalwarts have recently been joined by marketing marvels Apple and Google. As a result, the smartphone market recently became quite turbulent, with suppliers announcing new devices and new capabilities every few months.
With the iPhone now working its way into mainstream acceptance and Google finally taking the wraps off its Android, the level of innovation should cool down. Vendors will then find themselves competing more on price. Already, price erosion is evident at the bottom of the market where the dividing lines between standard cell phones and smartphones have dimmed. By the end of 2009, small and midsize businesses will find themselves with more functional cell phones carrying low price tags.
Given the global economic turmoil, businesses and vendors will be conservative moving forward into the new year. Rather than focus on dramatic new technologies with potential but also some possible flaws, the networking industry's focus will shift to maximizing use of technologies that recently started to gain acceptance.
See more columns by Paul Korzeniowski.
Paul Korzeniowski is a Sudbury, Mass.-based freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investor's Business Daily, Newsweek, and InformationWeek.