Besides all the megamergers and regulatory changes that have redefined the telecom business, the convergence of services, devices and networks also depends on smaller chips and smarter computers. "Life becomes easier as the technology matures," says Dean Douglas, a telecom industry expert with IBM Global Services in Armonk, N.Y.
"There will be a great deal more flexibility in the way applications are deployed, across whatever medium is appropriate."
More intelligent networks, for example, will interoperate more easily with each other and with user devices.
"Today, we have computers that are roughly as intelligent as a lizard," says Douglas. "By 2013, we'll see them with the computing power of a human. If you assume that supercomputers have a seven-year lead on workstations, then that kind of power will be on the desktop by 2020."
Mobile devices are getting smarter, too, with ever-smaller chips providing the means to greater power. And more powerful phones and other handhelds will be more secure, interoperable and flexiblealthough manufacturers chasing consumers with features like game play on mobile phones may not aim all their new features directly at business problems.
Nevertheless, says analyst Scott Cleland of the Washington, D.C.-based Precursor Group, souped-up handhelds will likely reduce the time required to get a real return on investment to less than one year from the current three years or more.
Given the rich features offered by services such as Voice over IP and smart handheldsthe ability to search voice mail, for example, or to set up conference calls as easily as using an instant-messaging servicethe telephone user experience will change dramatically, says economist and telecom expert Jeff Eisenach of the CapAnalysis Group in Washington D.C.
Yet the proliferation of devices with access to the network will have complications of its own.
Says Douglas: "In the not-too-distant future, we'll be seeing enterprises that have to manage a billion or more devices." That will include things like radio-frequency readers in warehouses as well as handhelds, laptops and PCs.
Managing them all in terms of service and security will require companies to set up intelligent networks that can perform rapid diagnostics and limit human intervention to catastrophic problems.
"We have standards for the desktop. Now, we have to do the same with phones and PDAs," Douglas adds. "I think some of the tools will be there in five years, but others will take longer. You need real standards for security, ways for the device to protect itself. It's not that simple."