Unified Communications Interoperability Forum: It's About Time

Rob Enderle

This week the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) was formed. It amazes me that in many communications areas, interoperability seems to be an afterthought rather than a requirement. Vendors seem to have the idea that if they can keep their solution proprietary, they can make more money. They point to the Wi-Fi success as an example that there isn't that much profit in a common standard, instead of realizing that the market will always move to a common standard and then proprietary approaches generally fail.


Unified Communications' potential can't be reached unless products can work across vendors because we live in a heterogeneous world where one size clearly does not fit all. Let's talk about what the formation of the UCIF means, why it took so long and what still could cause it to fail.


Formation of the UCIF

Initially, the UCIF contains an impressive number of core companies including HP, Microsoft, Brocade, Juniper Networks, Logitech, Plantronics, and Siemens Enterprise Communications. The problem for most of them was that the work needed to make sure their products work with those of other vendors was far more than they could afford. They needed something that aided most of the network and interoperability efforts in the early days of the computer: a framework for making different companies' technologies work together at once.


Without this framework of process and cross-vendor standards, adoption lagged for these technologies that could significantly improve the quality and effectiveness of communications between employees, partners and customers. Since missed or misunderstood communications often goes to the core of problems between these parties, it's essential to assure the quality, accuracy and timeliness of them.


In short, the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum is a critical step to finally making Unified Communications work across different vendors and reach its potential.


Why Did It Take So Long?

From my perspective, developing a proprietary communications technology is stupid unless you have a reasonable chance, like AT&T at one time did, to own the market. Even for AT&T, ownership limited advancement and set a situation where the first AT&T was broken up and eventually failed. Competition tends to keep a market vibrant, helps assure advancement and helps keep regulators focused on other industries.


Unfortunately, the telecommunications market was defined by highly proprietary PBX solutions where interoperability was intentionally avoided, and people constantly tried unsuccessfully to recreate AT&T.


People and companies don't change easily, and one or two wanting a change wouldn't be enough. Getting a large-enough group of companies to participate takes time. The largest companies are particularly difficult to get to the table because they don't want to put their market position at risk. In short, these things are really hard to get started, but when successful like Wi-Fi was, can enable a massive market that otherwise would not have existed.


Why UCIF Could Fail

An effort like this is critical to the success Unified Communications, but getting companies to cooperate on the needed agreements and standards can make herding cats look easy. It often takes one major vendor with the capability to go it alone to drive the others together. While the initial solution might not be ideal for anyone, it is better than the alternative. In this forum, HP and Microsoft are the most powerful. However, HP doesn't have the needed scale in telecommunications to create the needed risk, nor does it have a history of performing in this role. Microsoft has performed this role in the past, but only in areas close to Microsoft's own core technologies. This effort doesn't appear to be as strategic to Microsoft for it to create the necessary risk.


Cisco does have both the focus and breadth to play this role, but it is already going its own way. At the moment, it doesn't appear willing to cooperate in a multi-company standards effort. At Cisco's size and strength, it doesn't feel it needs to. While it can create a credible threat, it will be hard to create a sustainable standard without Cisco's participation. In addition, Cisco's size makes it likely that smaller players could join Cisco's camp if it brings something to market because that's where the revenue will be. A single company generally can move much faster than any standards effort.


Therefore, it will be critical for this group to embrace Cisco -- which will be nearly impossible if the effort looks anti-Cisco -- or find a way to dilute Cisco's influence. Neither path will be easy.


Wrapping Up

This is the beginning of what is likely to be a multi-year process to create standards that will allow the critical parts of Unified Communications to work together and fulfill its promise. However, success depends on leadership that can keep the vendors focused on the problems and not each other, and the ability to embrace or mitigate Cisco. Efforts like this fail when the critical problems are avoided for too long and succeed when the focus and resources are sufficient to overcome them in a timely way. This is a great start, but the hard stuff is still ahead. It is in all our best interests that it be successful.

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