Consolidation, partnerships, fluctuating sales and financial results have made the telecoms sector an interesting one for any industry player.
One firm that has been particularly busy here is Avaya. The vendor recently signed a deal with Extreme Networks, under which the two firms will sell each other's products, jointly developing solutions and sharing channels.
Like many other telecoms vendors, Avaya is also jumping on the Microsoft CRM bandwagon in anticipation of an enormous marketing push when Microsoft launches its product outside the US later this month.
Also, Avaya has modified its channel strategy. It is looking to data distributors to push its products outside its normal channel, is rejigging its Business Partner Programme and aims to take more of its business indirect.
But three years ago, when Avaya was split off from Lucent, itself a spin-off from Bell Labs and before that from AT&T, its future did not look as assured. The company was loaded with debt and its product line seemed to consist of old telecoms equipment.
At the recent Avaya Forum event in Barcelona, Evan Kirchheimer, lead analyst and manager for CRM at Datamonitor, said: "In Avaya's first year of existence it was all about reassuring the market that it was still going to be viable.
"There was lots of talk about financials. Now the company is talking about product. It is thinking about how to integrate."
Avaya's business is split between the enterprise communications group (ECG) and the small and medium business solutions (SMBS) group, which was founded in part through the acquisition of SDX and still effectively operates from the UK.
This divide looks set to change with the appointment of Saied Seghatoleslami as global vice-president of product management and development at SMBS. He will run the group from the US, and comes from ECG.
In the UK, Avaya now stands third in terms of line shipments behind Nortel and Siemens. It is making aggressive moves into the channel, and has chased data resellers and distributors, starting with Ilion, which ran with the firm's SME-centric IP Office product before being acquired by Westcon.
Avaya has aligned itself with BT, joining Cisco and Nortel as suppliers to the telecoms provider in the UK.
Avaya has also modernised its product range, with the possible exception of Index, and is well placed to reap the benefits of end-users' current taste for hybrid IP and TDM phone architectures.
"I believe we are winning, because customers will not rip out what they have if it is sufficient," said Lars-Ole Hansen, Avaya's regional president of EMEA.
"Customers can put in IP telephony to other parts of their business and still have them work [with their legacy systems]."
IP-enabled phone systems, or hybrid systems, have the lion's share of the market, and are relatively easy and cheap to implement.
A number of third-party firms, such as Quescom, RAD and Boscom, have developed IP gateways, moving external traffic over IP networks. These are sometimes easier and cheaper than proprietary vendor options.
Hansen also sees a growing need for IP telephony in company branch offices and among home workers.
"A number of things are changing. There are many more home workers and branch offices with DSL connections now. There are significant savings from improved productivity," he said.
Avaya is not alone in emphasising productivity gains. Many IP telephony vendors have stopped selling the concept on the basis that the systems are cheap to buy and run, and instead stress potential improvements in productivity.
Part of the reason for this shift is that switching to IP telephony is not necessarily a cheap solution. There are high capital costs associated with upgrading existing data networks, as well as the sometimes hidden costs of buying brand new, often proprietary, handsets.
One potential fillip for the company will be the launch of Microsoft CRM. Avaya believes that almost all SMEs are effectively contact centres, or at least could benefit from the sort of contact centre products that are typically sold to large specialist customers.
Microsoft's product will fit well with Avaya Contact Centre. "Microsoft has managed to get more than 1,000 customers for its CRM package in the US so far," said Kirchheimer.
"It is going for really small firms with this, but it has to resist the temptation to move up to the high end.
"It may sell into larger companies at a departmental level, but that is getting into the sort of market that the likes of PeopleSoft and Siebel play in."
But despite all the positive signs and the emergence of new growth areas for the vendor, Avaya still made a loss for its fiscal 2003.
For the year 2003, the vendor posted a loss of $88m on turnover of $4.3bn. This compares with a loss of £666m on turnover of $4.65bn in 2002.
Although the future looks bright for the vendor, it will have to see to this red ink on its balance sheet.
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