IP PBXes Gaining Unified Communications Capabilities

Carl Weinschenk

Technology exists on two levels: The equipment itself and the overall marketing and public awareness that will determine-as much or even more than the bits and the bytes-whether a particular widget and the overall category in which it exists will succeed or fail.

Unified communications (UC) and IP PBXes are two distinct but deeply related categories. The good news for them is that Microsoft is involved. Along with fierce competition, the company brings awareness, energy and a lot of cash. Last autumn, it unveiled Office Communications Server 2007 Release 2 and said that it would be ready for sale this month. The company made good on that promise this week.

The move is positioned in the well-written internetnews.com piece as being a further step toward the use of an IP PBX to provide multiple services. The endgame is the use of IP PBXes and associated hardware and software to deliver UC. Much of the commentary deals with exactly where Microsoft is in the evolution of OCS from an IM platform to provider of a complete UC offering. While experts disagree on how far along the company is, there is unanimity on the direction in which Redmond is moving.

Microsoft is not the only company wrestling with the best way to arrange the IP PBX/UC nuptials. This week, Digium introduced the Switchvox SMB 4.0, which, as the name suggests, is aimed at small and medium-sized businesses. The new version of the open source IP PBX adds faxing, instant messaging and video calling to the core VoIP functionality. VoIP-News reports that the new version of the product also adds the Switchvox Notifier, which improves integration with Microsoft Office applications.

ShoreTel is another vendor to watch. Indeed, Seeking Alpha, which identifies the company as both an IP PBX vendor and provider of UC platforms, suggests that it has the potential to be a winner. This investment analysis snapshot says the company has developed "the most flexible architecture in its category," that it is expanding its distribution relationships, that it should benefit from new products introduced last year, and is likely to gain a higher market share due to investments made in development and marketing. The writer says that the architectural advancement was the development of a distributed, switch-based approach that enables scaling of VoIP capacity without requiring multiple control units.

This TMCnet.com report on the Internet Telephony Conference & Expo that was held in Miami this week takes a look at the broader status of UC. The report, which was written during the show, makes two main points. The current financial conditions make it important to find ways to reuse as much existing gear as possible. The writer also says that though UC equipment is common, end-to-end platforms that offer customers a one-stop-shop are rare.

The problem continues to be defining UC. COMMfusion's Blair Pleasant-whom I've spoken to on this issue-is the focal point of this piece in destinationCRM. The writer paraphrases Pleasant's view that UC includes presence, a dedicated client or unified user interface, and call control and/or integration with voice. She adds that IP PBXes are an element of UC, but that the two are not synonymous.

Indeed, the tough challenge facing vendors is summed up in this quote:

"I think it's confusing when companies say they are selling UC, and in reality it's just unified messaging and IP PBX."

Even that explanation is confusing. Of course, the sentence was plucked out of a longer conversation. But the point remains that there are several variables-IP PBXes, UC and unified messaging-to which people assign different definitions. The bottom line is that the confusion will continue.

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