Dis-Unified Communications

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The trouble with unified communications is that for the most part, there is nothing very unified about it.

Instead, most vendors sell a core system that requires all kinds of add-on packages in order to work. There's no better example than the unified communications offerings from Microsoft and Cisco, which require a fair amount of consulting expertise to deploy and even more expertise to keep working.

Worse yet, most IT organizations don't really have a firm handle on which features in the communications system that users really want. And that makes it hard to figure out which features to deploy. Nobody wants to deploy a particular piece of software only to discover that nobody uses it. So many IT organizations take a piecemeal approach, in which they deploy some basic elements, such as instant messaging, without every really unifying their communications.

Part of this problem stems from the way IT-centric companies think about software. The basic assumption being made is that the customer is trying to buy unified communications software, when in reality the customer wants to buy a phone system that has a lot of new features that facilitate collaboration.

This approach seems to account for why vendors such as Shoretel are picking up market share during an economic downturn in the face of major competition from Avaya, Cisco, Microsoft and others. Instead of selling a lot of complex software, the Shoretel system comes with most of the unified communications software bundled with the IP phone system. Users can then discover at their leisure which features they want to use, rather than having IT people guess what to deploy. As anybody who has managed a phone system can attest, there's a wide variation in the chosen features that different people master. So the better part of valor is to make every feature easily discoverable in a way that requires the least IT intervention.

With its latest round of unified communications offerings, Cisco is making some shifts to emphasize interoperability with other systems. But by and large Cisco still thinks about communications like a networking vendor rather than a phone company. And although the phone service may be delivered over the network, what companies are really buying is not a network, but the ability to better communicate.