There is an element within the broader high-tech industry that, upon hearing expressions such as 'convergence of voice and data' and 'unified messaging' (UM), will roll their eyes. No evidence will ever be strong enough to convince these people that there is a real market for convergent technologies, let alone one poised to sweep the alternatives before it.
On their side they have the unarguable fact that adoption of converged solutions has been slow to date. Against them is a huge weight of opinion, some independent and some biased, that says momentum is picking up as user attitudes change, technologies mature and resellers buy in.
"The whole convergence and IP telephony story is gathering momentum now," says Alan Reeve, European business development manager for voice at distributor Azlan.
"Solutions that are even more secure and which offer flexible remote working capabilities will hasten uptake in the enterprise market. Forrester Research has noted that VoIP [voice over IP] will overtake standard phones globally by 2007, with Europe not far behind."
But perhaps the most important breakthrough that convergence has made in the past year, say the pro lobby, has been a cross-over from corporate plaything to a practical solution within the reach of medium-sized and even small businesses.
"While it is true to say many of the benefits of IP telephony have been more relevant to corporate users, progress has been made in taking IP telephony into the SME community," says David Dyer, channel marketing manager at Siemens.
"Home worker solutions, UM applications, IP VPN deployments and other applications have all been delivered, in volume, to our SME customers in many different sectors, including education, retail, manufacturing and professional services."
Dominic Campanaro, director of convergence vendor SwitchIP, is in no doubt that resellers are at the same time the beneficiaries and the authors of this key breakthough. "VoIP networking is filtering through to the channel and into the SME market," he says.
"It didn't before because the industry couldn't deliver a sufficiently high quality of service at an affordable price. This meant end-to-end solutions either worked but were out of most customers' price range, or were affordable but offered patchy voice delivery."
Teddy Theanne, UK country manager at QuesCom, agrees resellers, albeit mostly those with a history of convergence sales, are well set to gain from the SME boom.
"All the major distributors now have comprehensive IP product portfolios, and are promoting them heavily with their installer partners," he says.
"However, until recently, some resellers lacked the skills necessary to really embrace the technology. This means those that have done so are now able to differentiate themselves significantly and retain high margins."
The real key to mainstream convergence success in the channel, he adds, comes from the increased availability of broadband connections.
"This means low-cost IP telecoms systems can be deployed over secure VPN networks, which is an attractive proposition for many SMEs served by the channel," he says.
A host of new, largely SME-focused products has also emerged in the past 12 months, helping to boost take-up, according to Reeve.
"We'll see convergence technologies become smaller, more affordable and easier to implement over the next few years," he says.
"Vendors are already making breakthroughs with SME-focused IP telephony solutions. Alcatel's OmniCE provides full IP telephony functionality to firms with fewer than 20 users, Cisco Call Manager Express is being implemented on many small-office Cisco routers and Nortel's BCM Model 200 is pitching into SMEs with less than 60 users."
Reeve adds that such solutions have all the capabilities users might want and expect from full IP telephony and data networking, with added features as standard, such as call management, UM, in-bound call functions and Digital Enhanced Cordless Communications support.
"As these products become more familiar and trusted, the market will snowball," he says.
On the negative side, small businesses often find VoIP costly and disruptive to implement, according to Avner Peleg, services director at hSo. "Where we're really witnessing take-up is among organisations looking to establish VoIP links either between remote offices or for connectivity with the outside world," he says.
Smaller businesses certainly have the edge over larger ones when it comes to adoption of convergence in key respects. A small business can opt for a solution, such as those discovered by Reeve, without the difficulty of needing to run it in conjunction with huge legacy investments.
The need for major enterprises to move slowly into convergence may help to explain the slow take-up that cynics mock. It certainly explains so-called 'hybrid' technologies, which try to fuse IP-based solutions with more familiar technology.
As Campanaro puts it: "The popularity of hybrid systems will continue for some time because most companies have legacy equipment ? everything from cabling through to the actual handsets ? that they may not want to upgrade in order to install a VoIP network.
"Hybrid systems let firms keep whichever network components they desire, while still gaining access to the advantages of an IP network. Also they allow for different levels of IP connectivity."
Hybrid systems are, of course, a way for data networking resellers to ease their way into a market that many perceive, not without justification, as largely the property of voice resellers.
Campanaro adds: "Voice resellers still have the upper hand, because reliable voice delivery is key to providing a converged network, and they're the ones with the knowledge and training to ensure all the components work to their full potential."
Tim Brooks, marketing director for Avaya solutions at Crane Telecommunications, says the reason that voice resellers compete so strongly in the converged marketplace is they are quick to learn the new technologies and techniques involved in selling convergence effectively.
"Their ability to do this stems from the fact that they have been brought up in the difficult and challenging voice arena where they have had to work hard to develop their abilities," he says. "As a result of this, highly skilled sales people abound within many voice resellers."
Tony Martin, UK managing director of Microsoft partner Interactive Intelligence, says data resellers have been slow or even reluctant to learn voice skills because applications have traditionally driven their businesses and are what they know best.
But he sees signs that data resellers are increasingly happy to partner with voice resellers on converged sales.
"At the emerging voice applications level, some integration is required, and there is a bit of a lag in the market. But as the data resellers wake up to the opportunities, they are following the market," he says.
Martin also sees traffic the other way: "Voice resellers have traditionally been used to shipping equipment, and many have lacked the skills and contacts to handle data applications. Some of the more ambitious, more visionary ones are crossing the bridge, though," he says.
Chris de Silva, managing director of Philips Business Communications, envisages greater cooperation between voice and data worlds, as opposed to conflict.
"A converged reseller channel ? or rather a number of resellers selling both voice and data products ? is genuinely emerging," he says. "Whether those resellers are delivering solutions successfully to customers is a moot point. Success depends upon a historic area of expertise."
He adds that only a few specialist data resellers either recognise or understand the implications of voice products. "An incorrectly configured network can deliver appalling IP telephony quality," he warns.
"Without investment in consultancy and voice skills, the cost of implementation and ongoing support could easily become so high that the entire deal is unprofitable."
Too few resellers in today's market offer either the expertise or products to provide solutions that customers can actually buy, he claims.
"The market remains depressed and most firms are not in a position to make a wholesale migration to a converged IP network. Throw in a few well-publicised converged network disaster stories and selling is a serious challenge," he says.
De Silva warns that specialist voice technology resellers may be stealing a march on the market. "By recognising the need to build up data expertise rapidly, they are broadening both their product and consultancy portfolios."
Many pretty much agree with this depressing prognosis. Roger Jones, convergence director at Avaya, says that voice resellers are a key channel for IP telephony.
"A large proportion of them have converged to support IP telephony and its associated technologies. Traditional data resellers are bringing their expertise to the market, but the converged voice reseller has the voice applications and IP expertise that customers are looking for," Jones says.
Traditional voice resellers may be attempting to make inroads into selling VoIP solutions, but some appear to be struggling due to the data skills that are also required for a successful sale, says Falk Bleyl, product manager at Thus.
"Conversely, resellers of data services are skilling up to provide converged solutions. Resellers that have a track record on both voice and data services are best placed," he says.
It would seem to be in the interests of vendors to play the neutral middleman between voice and data camps. Dyer says that for the past five years Siemens has been working to create a converged channel and now has what he calls a broad partner base drawn from the best of the voice and data communities.
Siemens is in a unique position, he says, in that it has been able to furnish voice resellers with data skills and data VARs and integrators with voice skills.
Data VARs can bring vertical market skills to the table perhaps more readily than their voice rivals. But what markets are the hottest for converged solutions?
Mark Reynolds, UK managing director of reseller Topcall, says: "We've done lots in the public sector market in the past 12 months. What we're trying to sell is not so much the personal productivity angle as integration into business applications. That's where the real benefits lie for users."
Allan Poot, European regional sales director at Ipswitch, says resellers must keep it easy for users, regardless of the market.
"There is a false perception that more complexity means more features, which means better results. Nothing could be further from the truth. For many software vendors, competitive pressures result in products that sport 'architectures' that have been 'extended' to support new functionality.
"In reality, these products get more complex without adding significant value," he says.
Another concern possibly hampering wider VoIP adoption is security, because all traffic runs over the public internet. Resellers may find secure real-time monitoring solutions such as EtherPeek from WildPackets a useful value-added sale.
Mike Valiant, international market development manager at 3Com, says converged solutions need to offer businesses the same functionality and usability that they have today with their legacy systems.
"Businesses no longer want difficult-to-manage systems. They expect solutions to be simple and feature-rich," he argues.
One concern resellers may encounter when talking to businesses about integrating or upgrading to an IP-based telephony system is reliability and quality of voice.
"These concerns are understandable, with voice being the most business-critical application. But prioritisation mechanisms that ensure quality have been in place for some time, so customers can be reassured they will continue to get the same 'five nines' reliability they have become accustomed to," Valiant says.
Giving people what they are used to may seem an odd way of migrating them to a legacy-free, IP-based future, but if that is the best way to turn convergence from a market of latent promise into one of acceptance, then it may be necessary.
3Com (01442) 438 000
Avaya (0800) 698 3619
Azlan (0118) 989 7700
Azzurri (01635) 520360
Crane (01444) 230 004
hSo (0870) 112 1122
NetCentrex (07766) 022 866
QuesCom (00 33) 497 23 48 48
Topcall (01344) 383 100
WildPackets (001) 925 937 3200
Highlander MD Steve Brown tells CRN about the skills he learned on the pitch and brought to the boardroom
Reports suggest Dell is pursuing a straightforward IPO, contradicting existing plans to buy out tracking stock holders
Analysts predict upturn in PC market next year, but 2018 to remain plagued by components shortages
Neil Sawyer claims he has 'never seen so many conversations about a new method of investing in workplace technology'