Unified Communications: A Great and Challenging Idea

Carl Weinschenk

A sober look at the results from the latest unified communications tracking poll from CDW provides some food for thought. While the person who wrote the press release does their best at putting a positive spin on the numbers, it certainly is possible to see them as evidence that the category is challenged.

 

Of course, in the current environment, it's impossible to find a company or sector that is not experiencing issues. UC is in a special category, however, because it clearly was struggling to create an identity before the economy soured. Such a task becomes more difficult during troubled times.

 

The study looked at 766 IT professionals who deal with UC at some level. Six percent of their companies have completed rollouts, 20 percent are implementing the technology and 33 percent are "actively planning for implementation." The point is that all but those that are done are in danger in the current environment. Even in good times, a category labeled "active planning" certainly shouldn't be looked at with a lot of confidence. Such a category clearly is a phone call away from a delay or suspension. Such a call is orders of magnitude more likely to come when the economy is in such a sorry state.

 

The debate on whether the economy will hinder or help UC will continue for months. The pessimists will say that no investments are likely during the recession, which shows signs of worsening every day. The optimists hope that the great efficiencies UC offers will make it clear that the road to ROI is short and the costs are justified. This uncertainty formed a backdrop for Lotusphere 2009, which UC Strategies' Blair Pleasant reports upon in this post The big news of the show was the announcement of LotusLive, a cloud-based service. There are a lot of questions about the type and size of businesses it will appeal to, and Pleasant outlines those and does a good job of describing the various elements of the service. The heartening news was that attendance was up 2 percent over last year.


Organizations still are battling with the difficulty of defining UC, which is not surprising considering that it is such a broad area. This TMC.net piece, written by a director from Alcatel-Lucent, provides a high level view of the field. The piece touts the importance of open architecture and standards as a way of extending UC. The writer suggests that enterprises may be best served by outsourcing to service providers instead of handling the tasks in-house.

 


The broadness of the entire UC category means that it will overlap with other topics with which it is not automatically associated. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that almost any enterprise communications subject has something to do, at some level, with UC. That was the case with IBM's cloud based-approach that Pleasant described. It also extends to an even more unlikely area: Apple's products. The Channel Insider reports that the iPhone and the iPod Touch are beginning to "pop up" in the enterprise as UC tools. The story describes LogMeIn Ignition, which is a remote control device enabling the control of these devices.


Mike Gotta, who is a Burton Group UC analyst, used his blog to report on UC predictions by Gurdeep Singh Pall, the corporate vice president for Microsoft's Unified Communications Group. Pall says that vendors will be required to deliver "true" UC when they claim they are offering a product in the category. This, of course, harkens back to the definition issues that dog the category.

 

Pall says more UC will be delivered in software-only configurations, that the category will become even more mobile and that UC functions will be included in more applications. Gotta also quotes Pall as saying that a new category -- unified conferencing -- will emerge, that the end of many voice mail maintenance contracts will leave the door open to UC upgrades, and that the platform will move further into the cloud (a prediction already validated by IBM and others). Consumer experiences will drive what is required of UC platforms and the evolution of corporate communications shops will be colored by the popularity of UC. Adoption, he concludes, will take off.


The world of unified communications is simultaneously active and static. It is active in the sense that new technologies and concepts, such as smartphones and cloud computing, are coming under its umbrella. The static element is that the industry seems to still be having difficulty nailing down precisely what UC is. Indeed, the top item on Pall's list is the same issue that could have been the top item last year or the year before. The difference this year, of course, is that we are in the middle of a virulent recession. That clearly will be a key factor in how the concept progresses in the year ahead.



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Jan 27, 2009 5:37 AM John Smith with RHUB John Smith with RHUB  says:

You may want to take a look at a multi-function web conferencing appliance from RHUB at http://www.rhubcom.com. It provides a cost-effect solution for on-premise unified communication.

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Jan 28, 2009 4:44 AM Arthur Rosenberg Arthur Rosenberg  says:

Carl,

Your observations about UC are very accurate. No matter how you define "unified communications," there is still too much to be done before enterprise organizations and service providers can deliver what everyone really needs. As you well know, I have described UC as enabling mobile, "multimodal" communications with people both inside and outside of an organization, and the piece parts of UC, from IP networking to multimodal applications to personalized multimodal endpoint devices are just starting to become available. However, enterprise IT doesn't know how to handle all this new stuff because it doesn't have the experience yet. So, even if you gave the new technologies away for free, it will take a while for the enterprise market to change their traditional premise-based management approach.

Unfortunately, the wireless carriers, who should be playing a key role in supporting UC contacts and "federated presence" for real-time contacts, have been dragging their feet because they want to keep a lock on their existing subscriber base of consumers and haven't really addressed the needs of the enterprise. So, the question of who will be the provider of hosted UC services has become very questionable because there are too many players involved and they are just starting to team up in a meaningful way for the enterprise market.

Bottom line is that we don't really have a UC "forest" yet, just a few "trees!"

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