Nortel looks to send competitors a VoIP message with latest server offering

For those who say Nortel Networks Ltd. cannot possibly be bullish about voice over IP technology because of its deep-seated investment in traditional telephony, the company offers a server-sized response.

Nortel recently announced a showcase trial of its Interactive Multimedia Server (IMS) with Bell Canada, wherein Bell would present some of its Centrex customers with VoIP functionality from the new Nortel system. Centrex is a type of PBX where switching occurs at the telephone company’s office, rather than on the customer’s premises.

IMS, Nortel’s latest VoIP product, offers personal call management capabilities, instant video calling, “hot desking,” collaborative messaging features and, all told, a firm answer for competitors skeptical of Nortel’s intentions with VoIP, said John Egli, the company’s director of marketing for voice over IP business services.

“We are firmly behind voice over IP, there’s no question about that. I think a lot of that (skepticism) is being put out by some of our competitors; that it’s not in our interest to migrate to voice over IP. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, actually. It’s a win-win for us and our customers.”

One Nortel’s competitors in the VoIP area is Cisco Systems Inc. During an interview late last year with Network World Canada, Tim Schnare, a major accounts manager with Cisco Systems Canada Co., said the company has a leg up on Nortel because “Cisco doesn’t have a legacy to protect in terms of PBX or old telephone switching,” whereas Nortel does. Given that legacy, Nortel can’t be as enthusiastic about IP as Cisco is, he said.

As Nortel’s product line grows, so too does the company’s revenue, Egli said. And Nortel’s clients, he added, win greater choices among the myriad applications and technologies the company offers.

The IMS gives end-users a host of personalized services, Egli said. The call-management function lets them specify how calls are handled. They could send one call to a particular voicemail box and another to a cell phone or a mobile e-mail device, as they wish.

Instant video calling offers easy voice-video interaction, he added. “Hot desking” lets users change seats without having to change identities, as phone numbers and preferences remain with the device, not the wire they’re attached to. And the collaborative messaging system acts as a study in usability with simple screen sharing, co-browsing and Web pushing.

Although Nortel is targeting carriers like Bell Canada with the IMS, these next-gen functions speak to everyone from the CTO to the residential user, Egli said.

“A lot of this stuff is here today, but we believe usability issues are the reason why it hasn’t come to the mass market.”

Laurie Gooding, a Chicago-based senior analyst with Pioneer Consulting LLC, said the key to VoIP’s success lies with users, not Nortel’s immediate clients.

“The carriers all realize that they could take the overall transport layer over to voice over IP,” she said, “but it won’t really matter. It’s the applications you offer.”

If that’s true, Nortel is on the right track with IMS, Gooding said. Users might like the server’s features, which, in turn makes IMS attractive to carriers.

Carriers might also like Nortel’s go-slow approach to VoIP migration, the analyst said, adding that “evolution” is the name of the game, not “revolution.” Bell Canada’s trial counts as evolution, Gooding asserted. The telco is testing Nortel’s server with certain Centrex clients in Ontario and Quebec.

According to Barb Potts, Bell’s associate director, Centrex product management, Centrex is the forgotten child of telecom technology. “We haven’t really added, in the past couple of years, new features and functionality,” she said.

IMS could change that, however, making Centrex a more attractive service. Over time, Potts said, Bell might build a sort of “hosted business telephony” platform, wherein the carrier takes care of the infrastructure and end-users simply enjoy the increased functionality that VoIP affords.

Gooding said she puts little stock in Schnare’s opinion that Nortel is too steeped in old-fashioned technology to promote VoIP. As far as she’s concerned, Nortel is behind this new style of network, although she warns that Nortel should stay “focused on real solutions and forget about the TDM (time division multiplexing) solutions of the past.… (Nortel should) keep an eye on the ball and not become overly confident.”

Bell Canada’s Potts said VoIP is the way of the future, with a single wire carrying both voice and data, and “Nortel is definitely spearheading this” with the IMS.