Networking and telecom started with the goal of creating connections among communities of users. While voice was the original medium of these messages, the expanded availability of computers and data-capable appliances like cell phones created a broader notion of what "communications" among users meant.
The advent of the Internet and relatively inexpensive broadband services has also introduced video into the communications picture. Like all changes, these have created both problems and opportunities for vendors and service providers, but the response of the marketplace to harnessing the new communications options often seems muddled and confusing.
It would be fair to say that the purpose of interpersonal communications, at the very least, is to create some form of "virtual presence" in order to simulate the normal face-to-face framework of human interaction among a group of users who cannot be at the same place at the same time. For this reason, we could put telepresence at the top of a hierarchy of interpersonal communications strategies. According to Wikipedia, "Telepresence refers to a set of technologies that allow [people] to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance that they were present, or to have an effect, at a location other than their true location."
Telepresence is a technology set that defines a goal, which is the ability to "feel as if they were present." Obviously, any definition that includes words like "feel" or "give the appearance" or "have an effect" is subjective, and one of the first challenges that modern interpersonal communications faces is figuring out what a given user might think necessary or even useful in creating telepresence. The market is taking two primary approaches, and those create the other two main threads of modern interpersonal communications: unified communications and collaboration.
Unified communications enables "presence" policies
Unified communications (UC) approaches the question of what makes one "feel" as if one is present in a virtual sense by working to break down the hard boundaries between the various communications channels that are available to users. A typical heavy user of communications services today has wireline phones, cell phones, email, instant messaging and SMS, and perhaps video and whiteboard capability. The typical user exercises all these options independently, despite the fact that they all converge on the same person and depend on that person's attention for their use.
Unified communications works to separate the notion of the user, which is often called the user's "presence," from the multiple channels of communication available and -- from the way the user is currently employing these communications tools -- to create a sense of what the user's needs for communications might be.
Without UC, a person might call on a cell phone while the user is on a wireline phone or busy writing an email. With UC, rules or policies can be established to control how each of the communications channels is allowed to work, given the combined cross-channel behavior of the user. With UC, in this example, the user might set a policy that says that if he is active on his wireline phone or typing an IM, cell phone calls should kick to voicemail.
Collaboration tools enable increased interaction
Collaboration is a mission-focused way of viewing the evolution of interpersonal communications. Many personal communications are simply short Q&A sessions or other minimal interactions, where voice communications are more than adequate to serve the needs of both parties. There are tasks that require more intense interaction and cooperation than voice alone can provide, however. These tasks are often called "collaboration," but the term that has been used in the IT world for a decade or more is "computer-supported cooperative work" (CSCW).
Video is the most interesting -- and the most problematic -- of the collaborative tools. At an intuitive level, it would seem obvious that "telepresence" can't create the feeling of being there without a visual presence. The concept of a meeting derives from "meet," which means bringing two or more people into direct proximity where visual and voice exchange can occur.
But there is a long history of rejection of video presence in collaboration, arising primarily from the fact that people going to real meetings have a chance to prepare themselves both professionally and in appearance. When a "video-meeting" is spontaneous, it may create a sense of intrusion rather than one of value. In one famous trial, workers would arrive each morning and hang something over the camera to ensure they weren't being observed.
Online sites like Cisco's WebEx or Citrix GoToMeeting may be more practical examples of the way collaboration must at least be rooted. These services assume that the goal of the "collaboration" is the sharing of visual material that is either being developed ad hoc or presented from a pre-built "deck" of visuals.
The services provide a way for all the attendees of a collaborative session to see the "presenter" desktop and thus share in the computer-generated view of work the presenter is using. The role of presenter can be passed around among the group to allow many people to interact with common material, though it is normally true that the group cannot collectively edit material.
The way in which collaboration, telepresence and UC interact in the market and are deployed by users may depend on the pace at which hosted presence services and online collaboration services are accepted.
Seizing the network hosting opportunity
If network operators are quick to deploy powerful, centralized presence management tools that can be used across mobile and wireline, and voice and mail/message services, and if collaboration sites are popular, then it is likely that UC tools will come to revolve around these network-hosted facilities.
If UC were to deploy in volume before hosted tools were widely accepted, then the success of network collaboration tools would depend on their integration with premises' UC systems and software, and control of the evolution of interpersonal communications within the enterprise could pass to the software/IT vendors.
About the Author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is a member of the IEEE, ACM, Telemanagement Forum, and the IPsphere Forum, and the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal in advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Tom is actively involved in LAN, MAN and WAN issues for both enterprises and service providers and also provides technical consultation to equipment vendors on standards, markets and emerging technologies. Check out his complete networking blog.