Unified communications (UC) is and always will be a hard platform to push into the enterprise because it is equal parts concept and technology. This is a challenge because it is difficult to describe and the fuzziness lets vendors and service providers define it in unique and, in some cases, contradicting ways.
The technical elements of UC -- the underlying hardware and the base applications (such as e-mail and VoIP) -- are complex but well defined. The key issue is that the more expansive vision of UC involves what could be described as network intelligence. This comes in the form of presence and context, the creative elements of UC that enable the hardware and software to react to what people do and become more than the sum of their parts.
Zeus Kerravala, a longtime Yankee Group analyst, says in this No Jitter piece that presence is simply the system's knowledge of whether a person is or is not available. Context, he says, builds on that to determine details such as where the user is, whether he or she is available, the device the user can be reached by, and whether he or she has the required skills and knowledge necessary for the task at hand. This deeper understanding, he says, is achieved by integrating presence, location and integration with knowledge systems.
Whatever the precise definitions of presence and context, they are important. For instance, suppose a customer service representative in a contact center gets successive calls from two people. One is angry about a problem and the other wants more information about an offering. In both cases, the ability of that CRS to find the person in the organization able to handle the situation -- to address the complaint in the first case, to describe the benefits in the second -- is clearly beneficial to the organization. These examples -- which start this long TMC feature on UC -- can only be handled by a very sophisticated system. The piece goes on to highlight gear from Zeacom, Avaya, Dialcom, Logicalis, NEC Unified Solutions, Nortel, Entersys Networks and ShoreTel.
This post at NJVC's CTO paraphrases Gartner's assessment that the next challenge of computing is to create a landscape of context-aware interactions in which the device used by the parties doesn't matter and in which the communication system reacts in lock step with the needs of the people who are using it. It's all a bit fuzzy, but the bottom line is that context and presence-awareness must add an intuitive element to all the underlying technology in order to enable the system to find and deliver the human and material resources that are necessary.
It is interesting and significant that several years into the UC era, analysts still feel it necessary to write descriptions of what it is and how it can benefit the organization. They do, and IT-Director.com provides a good one. It says that presence is one of the most powerful features of UC. It also tends use a more expansive definition that may stray a bit into areas other analysts would call context. Besides the importance of the definitions themselves, these two elements -- that basic explanations still are needed and that there is wide variation on how different things are described -- seems to characterize UC very well.
UC remains one of the most promising areas in enterprise IT and telecommunications. The bottom line, however, is that it is just as vexing as ever.