The convergence of connectivity technologies is well under way in South Africa, riding on the back of wireless devices. So says IBM Business Consulting services principal consultant, Chris Record.
"For customers, convergence manifests itself in the form of services. They see the fact that their bank can notify them via their cellphone that a purchase has just been made on their credit card as a piece of added banking security. They do not see it as a convergence operation, involving the bank's back office systems in converting data for delivery to their cellphone.
"Nor, indeed, should they. Customers do not care about technology. All they want is convenience - any time, any place service. Which creates an opportunity for telecommunications operators to do what they want most - to boost the use of their 'pipe' and increase network minutes. And it creates an opportunity for content providers to grab markets."
"Convergence is the point at which all three meet. Convergence enables telcos to offer content providers the means of reaching their customers any time, any place. Automatically, that gets the customers using the telco's pipe more, to be connected more often and for longer."
"At the moment, the most convenient any time, any place device is the cellphone - because it is wireless. PCs and palmtop computers also have wireless facilities, but are not necessarily as convenient for consumers as the cellphone until Bluetooth is more universally adopted. So, the convergence focus for telcos and content providers is delivering data of every conceivable sort to wireless devices, with an emphasis on the cellphone.
"And, in spite of regulatory and bandwidth restrictions in South Africa, that convergence effort is already paying off. For instance, SMS is one of the most popular means of communication in the country. And markets for other types of convergence - such as sending photographs via cellphones - are gathering momentum.
"So, the issue is not one of choosing a convergence route based on technology. It is a question of finding services that customers will be happy to pay for in terms of using their network more.
"With convergence, as with anything else, an organisation's choices should be business and not technology driven."
Protocol standards key
However, choosing a service is not easily done. The inhibiting factor is not bandwidth or government regulation or even technology itself, but standardising a delivery protocol.
"It took many years and false starts before the world's retailers and financial services institutions settled on credit card processes," Record points out. "There is also a huge commitment of funds involved in, for instance, developing and installing point of sale devices.
"So, while it is clear that the cellphone is evolving into a payment device as universally useful as a credit card, it will not reach critical mass until retailers and banks agree on the means of administering payments made by cellphone."
In recent months, IBM has significantly simplified the convergence process at a technological level. Its Service Provider Delivery Environment (SPDE) inserts a brokering layer between systems. That enables the re-use of common functionality components such as authentication, content adaptation and deployment facilities. New services can be created and managed independently of the underlying network and delivered to virtually any computing device that allows the delivery of data and/or voice. SPDE slashes costs, increases operational efficiencies and allows new revenue generating services to be deployed rapidly and pretty much at will.
"It turns traditional thinking about telecommunications architecture upside down," says Record. "But that is what convergence is all about: looking at the market and revenue streams from a fresh point of view."