We've looked at some of the financial benefits associated with unified communications and most recently the launch of the UCIF, or Unified Communications Interoperability Forum. We've also talked about how shifting definitions are hurting deployments. However, since I'm one of a handful of people that got to test advanced unified communications products a number of years ago and have been frustrated that the industry has been unable to bring them to market, I thought I would provide a user's perspective today. Let me be blunt, once you see what unified communications can do and use it, you'll never want to go back and you'll wonder why it took us over three decades to bring it to market.
Unified Communications Circa 1989
In 1989, I was responsible for competitive phone handsets for the ROLM division of IBM (soon to be sold to Siemens and killed, but that's another story). We were testing the idea of blending computers and PBXs back then. Because I was doing much of the testing, I got to use the advanced stuff.
We had both these PC phones and boards that went into PCs (vastly more reliable) and connected back to a regular ROLM Phone handset. The software would integrate voice mail and phone logs, show state (whether someone was in or not), and profs (the e-mail of that time), all on the same screen. You could come back to your office and see who called, when they called, whether they left a message, whether it was urgent, and whether the sender was in their office at the moment, all in a three-second glance. This was actually shipping in 1987.
Shortly after that and at the front end of the cell phone rollout, Northern Telecom had a system that would allow you to use a cell phone as your office phone. It would be on the cellular network while away from the office and flip over to the PBX when in the office. They even supposedly had a unit that could go in your home that would flip to the lower-cost home network when you were there. Interoperability problems killed the effort, but can you imagine the millions of dollars in charges that could have saved had it worked?
The sad thing is the vast majority of us don't have this capability yet and we seemed closer over 20 years ago.
Imagining What Unified Communications Could Be
I'm trying to figure out why each of us needs three or more personal phone numbers and voice mail accounts, none of which know the other exists (generally). We can only talk on one phone at a time and few of us don't have cell phones with us all the time. E-mail is a more efficient way to leave a message if we know someone is not there or the message isn't urgent. If it is urgent, voice mail sucks because we can rarely let someone know it is urgent. Finally, we should know whether someone is available or not because we are up to our collective armpits in instant messaging and social networking products that tell the world when we are, and are not, available. The problem is that most of this crap doesn't interoperate, so instead of the simpler lives we should have, we have become the weakest link because we aren't designed to physically bridge these services even though that is exactly what we seem to be doing.
So imagine, if you would, having one virtual service where you could manage your communications from one screen. You could see your e-mail, IMs, manage your state and see the state of others, and have one address that would follow you around for business and perhaps one other for close friends. Over this address, you could send texts if folks weren't around, or voice or video calls if they were (and you both wanted to see each other). In this world, you'd spend more time communicating and less time managing your communications. Folks you did want to talk to could get to you quickly and folks you didn't would be handled by the system.
This is the potential world of unified communications; it is a simpler place, one that is far less aggravating. Once we are there, we'll look back and wonder why it took so long.