The question of whether small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are going to get on the unified communications (UC) train has been kicking around for quite some time. The new twist is that if the savvy use of these platforms leads to the kinds of savings proponents project, it can make a real and immediate difference in whether a company survives or flounders in the current financial crisis.
The savings can be substantial. E-Commerce Times says that Biesse America, an American affiliate of an Italian company with fewer than 200 employees, opted for a Cisco platform. The company saves between $5,000 and $6,000 per year in phone bills and another $5,000 to $8,000 on travel cost reductions. The article mentions a study done by SIS International Research on behalf of Siemens Enterprise Communications. The finding that almost 60 percent of SMBs do not use UC-which means that almost 40 percent do -- actually suggests a level of acceptance that many would find surprising. The piece suggests that the next phase of UC, the use of the platforms to automate processes, will hit later this year.
Complexity is one of the drags on the success of UC among SMBs, and reducing it is the goal of a new product from BroadSoft. The eWEEK report on the announcement says that in the past service providers had to pre-provision devices, use standalone FTP servers, or provision phones individually at customer locations. All of these tasks are time-consuming and require significant expertise, the story says. BroadSoft has added functionality to its VoIP application platform enabling pre-configuration of user devices. This, the company says, will make UC more attractive to SMBs.
The best way, however, to wring out the complexity from the SMB UC experience is to transform it into a hosted service. Last month, LightEdge introduced a suite of services from BroadSoft and Microsoft under the name Connected Office. The offering, which includes PC-to-PC voice and video, Web conferencing, enterprise instant messaging and presence, consists of Microsoft's Exchange Server 2007, Office Communications Server 2007, Office Live Meeting and SharePoint Services 3.0 and BroadSoft's BroadWorks Hosted PBX VoIP. The piece says BroadSoft and Microsoft integrated the products and LightEdge is the first service provider to offer it as a hosted service.
A third recent UC SMB announcement was made last month. Digium division Switchvox added UC functionality to its SMB IP PBX platform. This VoIP News piece says that Switchvox SMB 4.0, which serves as many as 400 users, improves integration with Microsoft Office and adds fax, instant messaging and video to the previous version of the platform. The story describes the three additions, but may be using the term UC a bit loosely. The writer doesn't mention presence. This may be significant, since folks in the UC sector spend a lot of time defining precisely what the term means. Is a collection of individual communications products truly unified communications, or must an element of user awareness be included for the definition to be accurately used? The UC industry hasn't quite nailed this down, and it is possible that the term is being used in the broader sense in this article.
Finally, two other companies, U4EA Technologies and SimpleSignal, announced that they are working to bring UC to the SMB sector. The approach is to combine U4EA's Fusion multi-service business gateways with SimpleSignal's hosted VoIP and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunking. The press release goes into great detail on the rather confusing details of what each of these products provides. The bottom line is that the companies are offering a hosted, end-to-end service for smaller companies that want to get into the UC game.
Unified communications has a lot to recommend it. At the same time, it is undeniable that it has not lived up to its potential. The current financial crisis may help, or it may hurt. Proponents of the technology can point to the great benefits and fast return on investment that it offers. Pessimists, however, will say that folks will be reluctant to make investments-even good ones-in the current environment.