Unified Communications: Look at Products, Not Labels

Carl Weinschenk

Unified communications is a mess.


Not the technology itself, of course. That's in fine shape. Armies of very smart people are working on platforms that get any message to any device wherever the intended recipient happens to be.


The mess is the marketing. Unified communications (UC) is a terrible thing to have to shop for or, for that matter, to sell. It's not hard for a vendor to take just about any communications widget and slap a UC label on it. Purists can protest that UC refers to a specific set of platforms and protocols, and that certain things must be achieved before the label can fairly be used. Other will blithely ignore them.


Of course, all of sales is full of this misdirection. In this case, however, it's worse simply because the category is so amorphous to begin with. UC essentially is a set of sophisticated linkages between things that already exist. That wide breadth makes the landscape diffuse and difficult to immediately conceptualize. It's impossible to even call UC a niche: How can something that includes everything be called a niche?


The second difficult point for UC marketing, as this story in internetnews.com points out, is that a battle exists for the soul of UC between telecom and IT vendors. The winning sector will be in good position to dominate the entire corporate communications sector. When the names being thrown around include IBM, Cisco and Microsoft, it's certain that the food fight that ensues will be world class.


This posting at The VAR Guy reinforces the confusion surrounding UC. The writer, in a commentary centered on VoiceCon Orlando 2008, says that much product news carrying the UC label is little more than news about VoIP gear. He says most value-added resellers and customers would have trouble delineating the difference between VoIP and UC. He then provides some examples of UC, and concludes that the hype has reached its apex, and those considering purchases should be careful.


Corporate planners will have to deal with all of this confusion. Infonetics Research's Matthias Machowinski reports here on recently conducted UC research. A main takeaway of his report is that user desires play a surprisingly small role in corporate decisions to deploy UC. This, Machowinski says, goes counter to the common wisdom that workers clamoring for UC are forcing the issue by bringing consumer-grade gear to the enterprise. Indeed, his point seems to conflict with findings by Orange Business Services, which say that the presence of younger workers accustomed to UC is putting pressure on companies to incorporate such tools.


The Infonetics research also suggests that return on investment is a tricky metric for UC. It's easy to quantify money saved. But the bigger benefit of UC is increased productivity, which is harder to measure. About half of the companies that Infonetics spoke to don't measure UC ROI at all.


A brighter vision of the potential of UC was voiced by Avaya CEO Lou D'Ambrosio at VoiceCon, which was held last week. D'Ambrosio, according to Network World, said UC can streamline business and even help the nation shake its current economic woes by increasing corporate efficiency. The company announced bundles aimed at specific sectors and said that its UC products will work closely with gear from IBM, Microsoft and Cisco.


In the final analysis, IT shoppers should take UC claims with a grain of salt. Where it is a specific platform for knitting together disparate communications channels and devices -- such as letting a call travel through the wireline, wireless and cellular networks in search of an intended recipient -- it should be recognized as true UC by IT shoppers. However, folks should be wary of vendors who slap the UC label indiscriminately on standalone systems. Those products may be great -- but they just may not be unified communications tools.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Mar 28, 2008 6:27 PM Art Rosenberg Art Rosenberg  says:
Carl,I certainly agree with the concerns about the confusion "UC" has been causing and it is only going to get worse once Communications Enabled Business Processing (CEBP) gets into the picture and UC expands from flexible forms of person-t0-person contacts into business process to person notifications. We really need some new descriptive terminology to differentiate the infrastructure components (servers, networks) from the functional capabilities that end users will see through the client interfaces of their endpoint devices. End user could care less about infrastructure and IT don't necessarily understand end user needs. However we need to consider both, but separately and in a related way. Connections are different than interactions, just as content is different than features. Telephony is the biggest offender because of its history of proprietary hardware and software. So, now that IP telephony is becoming part of an open, distributed "UC" framework, it is time to treat like an end user service, regardless of who supplies that service. I have started treating UC like other web-based applications that are "mash-ups." That is the level end users understand, the combination of software features and functions, independent of the hardware interfaces. The SOA architecture and network interoperability issues are important infrastructure considerations, but should be kept separate from the operational concerns that end-users want to use. Its like separating the need for a truck from a motorcycle to a train to transport people or goods from location-to-location. Here we have person-to-person contacts and information access coming together for "collaboration," but must be device and modality independent to satisfy the needs of different people at different times (especially when they are mobile.) Reply

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