Maybe you've heard: computers will be making more phone calls in the future, and phones will be doing a lot more computer stuff. For a glimpse of what that can mean, check out the new SIP-compatible phone systems from companies like Alcatel, Avaya, Interactive Intelligence, Nortel Networks and Pingtel.
SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is a developing standard for how computers make phone calls over the Internet and how phones can use computer applications. It's the glue that binds these independent technologies, facilitating new kinds of interactions.
For example, suppose you get a phone call from an important customer with a question you can't answer, and you want a little help. If you had the SIP upgrade to Avaya PBX, your telephone desk set would display who in your company is on the phone or available for phone calls and at what phone numbers. Your phone would also show who is logged on to Avaya's secure, intramural IM service, so you could IM co-workers while your customer is still on the line. Alternatively, you could forward the call or conference in one or more co-workers using mouse clicks in a computer-based phone book like Microsoft Outlook.
Besides access to computer applications, SIP systems adopt the IM buddy list concept of "presence." Participants need to be logged in to the company server with their preferred mode of contact and availability indicated.
But location becomes irrelevant, since these PBXs can forward your calls to any traditional, cell or IP phone. To be a full-fledged participant from home or a hotel, you'll probably still need the provider's softphone client on a computer with a broadband Internet connection. But soon, these programs should fit on Wi-Fi-enabled PDAs, smartphones and future SIP-enabled portable phones, says Peggy Gritt, Interactive Intelligence's senior director of product marketing.
White boarding, videoconferencing and the automation of customer care or enterprise resource planning processes are also on the SIP road map, says Mack Leathurby, Avaya's marketing director. Someday, your accounting program will send IM alerts to your phone whenever you run low on widgets. Eventually, he adds, our many phone numbers and e-mail, IM and Web addresses will all be cross-referenced to a single SIP address/number so we'll be easier to reach.
The cost of this functionality is hard to pinpoint because of the varied ways vendors price their systems. Upgrading an Avaya PBX to SIP starts at $25 per employee (plus server costs) but is free on Interactive Intelligence's entry-level PBX implementations.
Long term, standards like SIP break down market barriers by making equipment and software vendor-independent and interchangeable. Expect SIP to drive prices down, spawn innovation and, of course, accelerate the spread of VoIP.