Opinion: The death of telephone tag?

No matter how many gadgets you carry or phone numbers and e-mail addresses you own, when it comes to making contact, we all suffer the same frustration. Say you need to reach team member “Jack” immediately. You call his office but it rings through to voicemail so you leave an urgent message. You try his cell phone, even his pager, same deal. You send an e-mail marked urgent. Now what?

Well, if you and Jack work in the same office, you’ve still got some options. You can conduct an office-by-office search yelling out his name; camp out at his desk and chat with other colleagues who’ve come by to see him. (“Hey, you’re not Jack…”). You can even leave a testy note on his car windshield should you anticipate him heading out to lunch or a client site without first checking for urgent messages.

But what if one (or both) of you works remotely? All you can do is message Jack blue and hope he resurfaces.

One of the toughest challenges for teleworkers is to create and maintain a level of communication and collaboration equal to that of in-office colleagues. Sure, your home office technology might be as fast and advanced as theirs’, your network application access as seamless, but truth is, when it comes to benefiting from face-to-face time and spontaneous access, in-office workers still have it much better.

Case in point: One of the benefits of going to trade shows like this past Comdex is I get to meet up with in-office colleagues I see maybe six times a year. While in Vegas, Keith Shaw and I met up for dinner. On the way, we chatted about Star Trek and gambling. The conversation seamlessly shifted to brainstorming, and before we knew it, we’d come up with some good feature story ideas we’d agreed to collaborate on when we got back to our offices. At that point Keith turned to me and said, “We really should get you up on a videoconferencing system – or something. So we can … do … this.”

Exactly. Collaborate on demand with remote colleagues naturally, the way you do in person. A company called Axiom Systems Inc. has built a system that allows just that and puts an end to telephone tag once and for all.

Its ambitious flagship product, Ossia, is an IP-based dynamic collaborative communications system that bridges existing IP and PSTN networks to find, connect and communicate with a company’s workers, and to do so with a choice of text, voice and video using any phone or Web-based PC.

So with Ossia in place, Jack can’t vanish. You’d simply pick up your phone, say, “Find Jack” and Ossia would try to reach Jack at a series of pre-configured locations (office phone, cell phone, pager, etc) until the live Jack (not his prerecorded message) responded. And Keith? He could initiate a videoconference with me the moment an idea strikes him, or vice versa.

Ossia runs on Windows 2000 Server and consists of a Registry Server, Media Server and a Telephony Gateway. The system’s central controller, the Registry server, handles the business logic and flow control between the end point devices, the Media Server, and the network gateways. It also serves as the system wide user directory. Routing files are created for each user that dictate how and when they can be reached. Communication can be specified by day of week, time of day, sender, media type and input from a calendaring system.

The Media Server delivers media streams to end-point devices that are unable to receive multicast IP traffic, and the Telephony Gateway communicates with IP and PSTN networks and the Registry Server to set up PSTN calls via the H.323 protocol, establish IP-based calls within the system, as well as control the flow of audio data to the Media Server. The Telephony Gateway also provides a speech-based interface that lets users dial and issue system commands (“Find Jack!”). Additional Ossia gateways are also in the works for WAP, SMS, two-way paging and 3G wireless devices. Ossia can be configured for a LAN, WAN or as a hosted service.

Version 1.0 supports instant text, voice, and video messaging and conferencing. Collaboration features include file transfer, document sharing, whiteboarding, presentations and desktop sharing for joint document editing. Future versions will add text to speech, speech to text and language-translation capabilities. The ability to record, store, search and edit communication is also in the works, according to Bob Hilborn, Axiom8’s vice president of business development.

Initially, Axiom8 is targeting consulting, systems integration, communications, global manufacturing and financial services firms. But the company is also working hard to get the attention of the telework industry and political advocates like Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. As a long-time teleworker himself, Hilborn has often felt his in-office colleagues were achieving more because they had better access to people and resources, and sees Ossia as a way to spur the growth of telework.