A galaxy of hardware and software manufacturers have set their eye on the potentially huge market for voice over Wi-Fi (aka voice over wireless LAN and VoFi) in the business sector. Everybody wants to walk that road, but no one can go it alone.
"With voice over Wi-Fi, there are a number of areas where, essentially, nobody has all the pieces to make it work together," said Stan Schatt, ABI vice president of broadband and wireless networks.
Schatt points to several examples of situations in which strategic alliances could generate the kind of value added propositions that in turn might woo potential VoWi-Fi users in the business space:
Most vendors, for example, don't have the kind of fixed/mobile convergence software offered by a firm like Silicon Valley startup Agito Networks. Handset manufacturers may need to form alliances in order to get access to client software. A VoWi-Fi PBX extension project will need the participation of a PBX manufacturer. Likewise, a Wi-Fi infrastructure vendor like Aruba might not have the voice troubleshooting tools offered by a company like AirMagnet.
The list of potential alliances is extensive. In addition to those named above, other partnerships may include deals between manufacturers and chip makers. Schatt points,for example, to the interoperation between Intel and Cisco that allows for longer battery life in a laptop using a Cisco system and Intel's device management capabilities.
If the different players on the scene can create such partnerships, Schatt said, the VoWi-Fi numbers could climb fast in the next few years.
Today some 3,200 access points are dedicated to delivering VoWi-Fi. That number could balloon to 56,000 by 2012. Likewise, today's $1.1 million in revenues for access point dedicated to VoWi-Fi could swell to $12 million in that same time frame.
For those numbers to materialize, however, several other conditions will have to be met, Schatt said. Wi-Fi Alliance certification for enterprise Wi-Fi handsets is slated to begin next spring, "and that can't be delayed. That has to go on as scheduled," Schatt said. At the same time, unresolved standards in areas such as roaming and load balancing will need to be finalized sooner rather than later.
Nonetheless, even if all of these conditions are met, the industry still may stand or fall on its ability to foster strategic partnerships. More to the point, these will need to be real partnerships, strategic teamings that delve deep beneath the surface.
"It's got to be more than a marketing partnership," Schatt said. For such arrangements to be successful, "there will be actual work that takes place, a real integration between two sets of products.
"You are looking for a situation where you actually have engineers working on a value add, so that when you use the two products there is actually some advantage to be gained."
Schatt points for example to the Cisco Compatible eXtension (CCX) certification suite, which makes it easier for client devices to connect to wireless LANs built on Cisco-based infrastructure. Another successful example is AirMagnet's integration into Cisco's management console for ready access to a wide array of reports.
Forging such productive ties is an essential first step, but it is not the whole story. For the network equipment manufacturers who likely will bring these value adds to market, "you still need to train your channel to sell the two products together," Schatt said. He pointed to Nortel's 1998 acquisition of Bay Networks as a case in point. For that pairing to succeed, Nortel's sales channel had to learn to look beyond voice, to integrate data networking into its overall frame of reference.
Presumably the sales channels will eagerly rise to the occasion. In the increasingly competitive VoWi-Fi marketplace, Schatt said, resellers are looking for a way to differentiate their offerings.
"The resellers see this as an opportunity. Right now they are getting beaten down on price as Wi-Fi becomes more of a commodity. You have a lot of competition out there when it comes to Wi-Fi equipment. But when you start to get into value add areas, particularly areas that provide immediate financial benefits, then you have a new range of opportunities."