If we went for hyperbole, it would be entirely justifiable to write that the future of modern corporate communications will be "fought on the great battlefield of unified communications." An entirely realistic case can be made that much of the positioning and posturing vendors and service providers have done during the past half-decade or so will culminate in the great tussle over UC.
Well, we don't really go for hyperactive writing. The reality is, however, that once everything was put on the same IP-based network, the die was cast for initiatives aimed at knitting all the applications so closely together that they could seamlessly and elegantly ferry messages across the entire landscape. This, logically, can do nothing but eviscerate the competitive landscape, ripping what was built over a century of toil to shreds (oh, sorry, make that "change the competitive landscape significantly").
However it is phrased, a different future is arriving. One bookend is the potential of UC. The other is the importance of Microsoft. The company introduced core components of its UC strategy this week in San Francisco, including the RoundTable video conferencing device, updated Live Meeting videoconferencing software and the Office Communicator.
By far the most important product is Office Communications Server 2007. News.com does a nice job of describing how the product expands on its predecessor, Live Communications Server. IP data -- an e-mail, an IM or anything else -- can move effortlessly between IP-based applications. Indeed, the breadth of the project is evident at this Microsoft link, which enables searches of the company's UC partners by general area (conferencing, e-mail, hardware, IM/presence, unified message and voice) or summon them all at once (about 90 companies are listed, many of which introduced products for the occasion).
The handwriting is on the wall. As the network collapses into one big UC bouillabaisse, vendors need to subtly redefine what they do. The common and unsurprising wisdom -- which also is voiced in the ZDNet story -- is that Cisco is taking a network approach and Microsoft a software approach to UC. The interesting (and amusing) part is the ways in which the two vendors say they will work together. The reality is that the line between cooperation and competition will be a lot fuzzier in an era in which different hardware and software elements of a network fit together so much more snugly than in the past.
One example of how UC changes things is that it gives Microsoft a presence in the telecommunications sector. Sean Gallagher at InfoWorld blogs that Microsoft has been smart in that it has waited until most of the technology development needed to enable IP to work in the telecom sector -- and therefore support UC -- has been done. The next great challenge, one for which Microsoft is uniquely qualified, is making products that are user-friendly.
Such a significant shift also has its human ramifications. Computerworld describes the contretemps that likely will occur between IT and telecommunications staffs as the demarcations between the two realms fade. What's at stake is which department, telecom or IT, will have control. While no definitive conclusions are reached, the sense of the piece is that the telecom folks will always have an important role and a big say in things, but the ultimate hammer will be wielded by IT.