Call it convenience computing

Avaya Labs explores apps that focus on workflow, not data

Some people are born with an internal clock, and I'm lucky enough to be one of them. Although I don't wear a watch, I can usually estimate what time it is within a 10-minute degree of accuracy. It drives my wife crazy.

If we're planning to be downtown Toronto by 7:00 p.m., for example, I'll insist that we leave no later than 6:15. You wouldn't think it a 45-minute trip, but it takes us about 10 minutes to walk to the subway, another 20 or so to ride the subway downtown, and then another 10 to change lines, hop on a street car or walk to wherever we need to be. Avaya Labs could use more people like me.

At the first IEEE Conference on Semantic Computing in California this week, I was told by Avaya's PR firm that its director of collaborative applications, Doree Seligmann, delivered a keynote speech in which she discussed the kind of projects she's working on. These include a method for calendar applications to estimate the time you must leave the office in order to arrive promptly for a meeting, and a personalized customer relationship management application that tells you, how, when and how often a caller has tried to reach you and pops up pertinent notes for you to use during your call.

These are not what we tend to think of when we talk about business applications. Traditionally business software have been merely tools that we use to speed up the creation, sharing and/or storage of information electronically. With the advent of advanced network technologies such as session initiation protocol (SIP), however, there will be a greater ability to automate not only the way data is managed but the way workflows are set up. Seligmann's pet projects are a case in point. They are not about helping you manage information but to manage the way you operate in between working on spreadsheets, text documents or Web-based forms.

Avaya has come up with the less-than-glamorous term "intelligent computing" to describe this kind of software, but it might be better to think of it as convenience computing. Like the hardworking executive assistants that almost no one but CEOs seems to have anymore, these tools are a way of keeping users on track and freeing them up to make the most of traditional CRM, BI, ERP and enterprise content management systems. (Some of them sound more like an electronic form of nagging to me, but I'm the one who hates getting so much as an Outlook Calendar reminder of upcoming staff meetings).

Convenience computing could become popular among various lines of business in an organization, but justifying them make take some doing. I can't imagine most IT departments putting the proposed Avaya applications at the top of their "to do" list, and I could even picture some senior executive teams asking why an efficient knowledge worker with a decent level of organizational skill would ever need them. More likely we'll see these applications creep in when companies decide to overhaul their communications infrastructure with IP telephony, and Avaya will be able to offer them as an attractive value-add. As helpful as they might be, convenience computing will pop up when it's convenient for the company as a whole, not just individual business managers.

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