Multi-Modal Communications 1

by Dave Michels

One term we use fairly often in unified communications is this notion of “Multi-Modal Communications”. There are some interesting new features and services that fall into this category.
As with nearly everything in Unified Communications, we start with the obligatory definition section. The way I see it is there are three four types of Multi-Modal Communications:

  1. The ability to communicate in real time (electronically) was limited to the telephone for a long time – about 100 years. Today there are numerous choices – txt/sms, tweets, facebook, IM, email, video chat, … we now have a choice in which real time communications solution is best for a given situation. The selected mode is generally optimized for success rather than convenience – I call my mom but text my kid.
    SINGLE choice of multiple modes. 
  2. Another type of multi-modal communications is the ability to change modes – my colleague Art Rosenberg calls this Trans Modal Communications. Here, the conversation might start with an IM that becomes a phone call. This is real time communications that changes modes during the conversation. That can be as simple as promoting a Skype call from IM to video (and back) or as old fashioned as sending someone a page (remember pagers) and telling them to call you.
    DYNAMIC use of multiple modes.
  3. For more fun, we have the notion of simultaneous modes in a single conversation – sometimes referred to as a “back channel’. A good example might be using IM during a phone call. Sounds silly but it is more common than you might think – for example, if the discussion mentions a  movie, one person can IM the web address for the preview page while conversing. This is particularly useful during a conference call since only one person speaks at time, but others may have additional notations or clarifications. Another example is with e-learning, where students can chat questions while the instructor is speaking.
    SIMULTANEOUS use of multiple modes.
  4. (Updated – contributed by @Aswath) – the concept of asymmetrical multi modal communications – where each party is using different modes. For example, 2-way radio to telephone or text to voice. A more classical example is TTY devices for the hearing impaired.
    ASYMMETRIC use of multiple modes.

Those are my three four modes of multi-mode communications- Did I get them all?

In an upcoming post, I will provide some examples of how multi-mode solutions are changing the conversation (for the better). There are some interesting products that are leveraging the notion of multi-mode communications. The potential is huge! Great ideas hitting the market in both consumer and enterprise segments.
But just one more note – in order to play in the world of multi-modal communications – it requires a computer or cell phone (smart phone even better). The classic home phone only offers one mode [though this can work with mode 4]. It is a sad failure of the VoIP industry that the VoIP phone’s micro-browser (or XML browser or web browser) never got anywhere from an interoperability perspective. (
The VoIP phone is an always-on wired device that really could be so much more – but it isn’t and likely never well be. I’ve seen some very clever apps – like a hotel app that could pop up a menu on the phone when you call room service. But if you call a restaurant or pizza place off-premise it is back to basic voice. The phone features, screen sizes, and keys never approached any type of industry standard usable outside the firewall.
I recently judged an Aastra XML contest. There were some great apps – a Twitter and Facebook client, Google Contacts integration (PhoneTop directory), even a PhoneTop presence app. Clearly the capabilities are there, but the market for these apps are limited. Few (any?) vendors can match the APIs and features of the Aastra phones and single vendor solutions are a tough sell in the open market. 

It’s an ongoing mystery – that with every major vendor committed to interoperability that we still have none.
Well, more on multi-modal communications soon.