Peeling the layers off the UC onion

The fire has been lit, and the frequency with which the term 'unified communications' appears in discussions concerning enterprise technology today only adds fuel to the flames. To ignore it would be akin to closing an eye on a smoking kitchen stove."

Don Van Doren, principal and cofounder of UniComm Consulting, an independent consulting firm, which focuses exclusively on unified communications, likens the shift to unified communications to a phenomenon most of us are familiar with.

"The new functionality enabled by converged communications capabilities opens up new ways of thinking about the role of communications and how it works in our everyday lives--both business and personal," says Van Doren. "It's really a similar shift as what happened when wired communications was overtaken by cellular-based telephony, data and video applications.""

Information technology heads now find themselves armed with a budget, but faced with an overwhelming number of options from various vendors, all pitching the perfect unified communications strategy for the organization. But what does the term 'unified communications' mean?

Various Definitions

Shalini Verma, a research manager at IDC's Asia/Pacific communications group, takes on a software-centric approach to the definition of UC.

"Unified communications is a common software platform that integrates IP PBX with a host of communications applications such as instant messaging, unified messaging, voice, web and video conferencing, with common management and provisioning mechanisms," says Verma. "Unified communications integrates telephony with different business applications to make communication and collaboration more intuitive for the business users."

Van Doren chooses to describe it with the end-product in mind.

"Communications integrated to optimize business processes," says Van Doren.

Van Doren's view is echoed by Jim Burton, founder and CEO of CT Link, a consulting firm which helps clients in the voice, data and networking industries with strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, alliances and distribution issues.

Both Van Doren and Burton are also cofounders of Unified Communications Strategies, a website containing resources on unified communications for enterprises, vendors and systems integrators.

"It is a lot more than a number of features and capabilities; it has to do with improving business processes," says Burton.

Corporate vs Personal Productivity

Clearly, the concept of efficiency within the organization is highly valued. Just which business processes stand to benefit from a unified communications strategy?

The latest Gartner/Forbes Executive Survey ranked maintaining competitive advantage, attracting/retaining customers and improving productivity as the top business issues facing executives today. And Bob Hafner, managing vice president of research firm Gartner, believes unified communications will go towards achieving the above-mentioned priorities.

"Unified communications is one of the first steps companies will undertake to address these business challenges," says Hafner. "This will be followed by integrating communications into the business processes to improve productivity, information availability, reduced work delays and create dramatic business advantages."

Van Doren's views are similar to Hafner's.

"Fundamentally, the benefits to a company come down to faster cycle times for business transactions, fewer processing steps and reducing staff requirements from better access to people and information and reduction in costs," says Van Doren.

Van Doren also cautions against the often-hyped concept of increased efficiency within the organization.

"Many suppliers speak about what I call 'personal productivity' applications. This functionality makes communicating with someone else easier, but often doesn't translate into business benefits," says Van Doren. "There are benefits that individuals using unified communications capabilities enjoy as well, but they are often more difficult to quantify."

The difference between improving business processes and personal productivity is also expounded upon by Burton.

"Companies expect technology acquisitions to serve them for some time. Buying a dead end product that won't fit into a long term UC solution can waste time and money and potentially take away a competitive advantage," says Burton. "Benefits are different. Employees may find a process easier, make them more productive and increase their job satisfaction."

Hardware or Software?

With the myriad of unified communications strategies marketed by vendors today, the question as to whether UC is hardware or software centered inadvertently arises.

Van Doren is of the view that it is neither, though he acknowledges the role each plays in the overall strategy. "While hardware and especially software are needed to implement unified communications, it really isn't about either of them," says Van Doren. "Unified communications isn't a product or a system, or a box you can purchase. Unfortunately, because too often vendors just have boxes to sell, unified communications becomes a label, and the 'next big thing'."

Burton emphasizes the view that unified communications is a process, but contends software plays a key role.

"It is more to do with process than hardware or software, but it is software that is used to optimize the business process," says Burton.

Verma offers an explanation as to why unified communications is shifting towards a software-centered focus today.

"Most network equipment vendors in the UC space are moving towards a software-oriented approach in terms of their product portfolio because there is a higher profit margin in software. Software also offers more flexibility in terms of innovations," says Verma. "Most network equipment vendors like Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and Alcatel-Lucent have adopted this approach."

Providers Speak

A burgeoning number of vendors have hopped onto the UC bandwagon, and we take a look at how some of the players position themselves in the market.

James Haensly, vice president, strategy, Avaya Asia Pacific, differentiates his company's take on unified communications from that of providers of desktop-only applications. Unified communications forms a part of Avaya's 'Intelligent Communications' strategy, which also includes an IP telephony infrastructure, contact center applications, and communications-enabled business processes. The company emphasizes collaboration across various interfaces, such as PCs, telephones, the web and mobile devices.

"We see the desktop perspective as only a small part about what unified communications is, and we see the universe of communications as being much broader than the desktop," says Haensly. "Users don't have to depend on a PC or laptop to carry out these communications capabilities." Kirsten Gilbertson, who heads Nortel's 'Innovative Communications Alliance' with Microsoft in Asia, takes on an application-driven approach despite Nortel's traditional image as a telecommunications equipment manufacturer.

Forged in 2006, the alliance signifies an agreement between Nortel and Microsoft to jointly develop communications solutions based on each company's experience and expertise in phone systems and software, respectively.

"It's all about user adoption," says Gilbertson, citing challenges which various application providers have faced in terms of user training. "We work with Microsoft because it's a desktop environment that everyone is familiar with. It's an easy user adoption path."

Roy Newbury, senior manager, unified communications, Asia Pacific, Cisco, emphasizes a network-centric technology environment with mutual awareness between applications and the network.

"Cisco employs a systems approach that integrates unified communications within a network. Our networks are application-aware and automatically provide end devices with rights and priorities based on the needs of the device and the application in accordance with organizational policy," says Newbury. "Applications are also network-aware; they seek out the network services they require-for example, an IP phone retrieving the proper settings for power or quality of service (QoS)."

Robert Le Busque, director, collaboration solutions, Verizon Business, describes his company's approach as a three-pronged fork encompassing collaboration, mobility and security.

"Mobility is the ability to use those applications and those services that reside on the enterprise network when you're not plugged into the network," says Le Busque. "From a product perspective, you're talking about things like secure-mode access, voice-over IP (VoIP), and the ability that VoIP now has to auto-forward voice traffic, transform it into text, and vice-versa."

"Security is not just about locking down any of the tools that cannot be used outside the corporate network. Security when it comes to UC is really about focusing on risk management--who has access to what tools, where and when," says Le Busque.

Future

The industry currently sees telecommunications equipment suppliers, desktop suppliers, application software providers, mobility providers and network and hosted providers all wanting a share of the unified communications pie.

Will any of these ultimately lay claim to the unified communications throne, whose global market was estimated by IDC in 2006 to be worth US$4.8 billion?

Burton predicts the market might boil down to a few major players.

"Every major PBX vendor is an important UC player," says Burton. "Over the long run, it is likely to be a battle between Cisco, IBM and Microsoft."

Van Doren estimates the market is large enough to accommodate more growth.

"Today, the leading providers are in the telecommunications and desktop spaces," says Van Doren. "We are increasingly seeing partnerships emerging among members across the various provider segments.

Other providers will offer UC-specific applications, and grow the market much further." Van Doren further contends the term unified communications is sometimes over-used.

"Yes, it's been over-hyped. Everyone wants to jump onto the UC bandwagon. Cisco has rebranded its telephony product line 'Unified Communications'. Microsoft has created a new division by that name. It's a pillar of Avaya's positioning.

I even saw a 'UC headset at a trade show a couple of months ago," says Van Doren. "But, unified communications is going to be a hot topic, and an important one, because so many of the vendors have seen that this is a natural evolution, and convergence, of separate initiatives in communications, networking, business applications, and more. And, because the opportunities for business transformation are huge, many companies are jockeying for position in this dynamic market."

Verma shares this positive outlook for growth in the UC market.

"It [UC] will continue to grow in scope as well as adoption in 2008. Unified communications is here for real because network equipment vendors and desktop applications players are joining hands to create solutions that cater to end-user needs," says Verma.

Burton similarly feels the unified communications hype will continue.

"2008 will be a big year for unified communications.

Most vendors agree on the basic definition, but each tries to put their own spin to help differentiate their products. They all have products branded as unified communications so the product will be around for awhile," he says. "At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter what you call it. It is the value of integrating communications components to improve business processes."

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