Because of increased mobility, workers will enjoy unified messaging – that is, combined email, fax and voice messaging accessible from an Outlook-type interface on their laptops. Faxes will be forwarded straight to the laptop and voice messages will either be accessed as attached recordings or will be transcribed into text by voice recognition software. Workers will be able to access their messages via the internet.
Talking on the internet
Voiceover IP (internet protocol) will spell the death of the telephone. This is technology that transmits the voice over the internet, allowing a company with multiple locations to keep in contact for next to nothing, and slashing the cost of international calls because the caller only pays for the local leg of the call. According to Ross, Abbey National has already gone live with this technology. Because it is computer-based, people will have a headset, probably connected wirelessly to their laptop, for making and receiving calls. Companies will save a fortune on expensive office telephone systems and call costs.
Complex, centrally located services will diminish as plug-and-play devices become more commonplace. One such device is the RoomWizard (right). Marketed by Steelcase, an American company that is branching out from office furniture to electronic products, the RoomWizard allows users to book meeting rooms via the company's intranet. It is fixed to the wall outside the meeting room and simply plugs into the intranet and to a power supply. The room's availability is visible on the corporate intranet and on the device's screen – people can book the room from their desks, from their home, or simply "grab" a free room as they are passing. Any number of these devices can be used in an office and they have been designed to work in tandem with other RoomWizards plugged into the network. The system is accessible, simple to use, doesn't need anyone to manage it and is perfect for the team-working nature of the work environment.
A sister product called Quorum (pictured) has just been launched. A portable remote collaboration tool, it is plugged into an overhead projector and allows delegates to mark up a presentation by writing on electronic tablets that are plugged into it. As the presentation is available on a web link, people will be able to contribute to the meeting remotely and mark up the presentation using a computer mouse, or by plugging in a tablet into their PC. Duncan Wilson, senior analyst at Arup Research + Development which has developed the RoomWizard and the Quorum prototype in collaboration with the Appliance Studio, thinks these tools will prove popular because they do one task simply and well. "We wanted people to walk into a room, pick up one of these tablets and start working."
Because people will be so mobile during their working day, location-aware devices will start appearing. Microsoft is developing ideas in this area and DEGW has worked with location-awareness specialist Ubisense to develop a system. With this, employees wear small credit card-sized devices called Ubitags (left) that communicate wirelessly with a series of sensors located around the building that, in turn, are linked to a software package. The system helps employees to find out where colleagues are, even if they are on another site. If they are in a meeting or on the telephone, the system can activate a buzzer in the Ubitag that sounds when the person becomes free.
The system can also personalise office equipment to the preferences of each user and, in the future, location-aware devices could even control building services to either adjust the temperature in specific rooms to suit individual preferences or adjust building ventilation rates according to how many people are in the building.
The highly flexible, mobile environment also presents greater security challenges and location-aware devices could play an important part in meeting these. For example, tags could be linked with a user's computer and only allow that person to log on to a network. Location awareness also means sophisticated security systems can be discreet – authorised users will be able to wander freely without passing through obvious security barriers but anyone whose tag doesn't authorise entry into restricted areas will find doors won't open.
Buildings will still have wired networks but they will use fibre-optics rather than copper cable. These will be used where a totally reliable connection is needed and to carry bandwidth-hungry information such as video conferencing. The move towards mobile working and plug-and-play devices linked via the web will mean that huge communications rooms in the basement will become much smaller.
Building designers will have to use materials that don't block radio waves as offices will be fitted with several wireless networks. Some rooms may be screened to block radio waves of certain frequencies to make more efficient use of limited frequency availability. Screening could also be used to stop certain frequencies escaping a room reserved for transmitting privileged information. Special coatings could be used on exterior glazing to limit the escape of radio signals, thereby prevent hackers getting into corporate networks outside the building.