Big guns target the unified communications market

However, one Kiwi company is claiming poll position after nearly ten years in the game

Microsoft and Cisco are both making serious moves into what is clearly seen as the next big thing in telecommunications: the unified communications business.

Microsoft is tackling the market with a grouping of products, including Office Communications Server 2007, Office Communicator and Outlook. Cisco, meanwhile, with one US$3.2 billion (NZ$4.12 billion) acquisition, has gotten in Microsoft’s face and positioned itself to give the software giant a fight in the battle to supply corporations with unified communications tools from office applications to web conferencing.

The company launched part of that strategy in New Zealand this month at the Ingram Micro Showcase in Auckland. Labeled the Smart Business Communications System, this is an IP-based telephony system aimed at small to medium-sized businesses. Regional marketing manager Suzanne Hansen already claims five local orders for the system, which has finance and rental packages wrapped around it to make it easier to buy.

Earlier this year Cisco bought WebEx, significantly increasing its capability to deliver unified communications products.

“Cisco has become a multi-headed beast all of a sudden,” said Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group, at the time. “This deal puts Cisco aggressively in the face of Microsoft.”

While web conferencing dominance is the obvious advantage Cisco gained by acquiring WebEx, it is the other offerings from that company that help make the equation that much more interesting and a threat to Microsoft.

Beyond Web conferencing, those assets included WebEx Media Tone Network (MTN), a global network and platform specifically designed for secure delivery of on-demand applications. Microsoft is trying to build the same thing with its collection of services under its Live brand.

In addition, WebEx had WebOffice, which runs on MTN and provides document sharing, calendars, databases and web meetings. WebOffice is designed for small businesses, project teams and departments much like Microsoft’s Office Live solution.

Microsoft is grouping a similar set of capabilities around its upcoming Office Communications Server 2007, Office Communicator client and Outlook.

Asked if Cisco now considered Microsoft its major competitor, Hansen says the companies are partners on many fronts but “agree to disagree in some places”.

While the majors are suddenly waking up to the unified communications opportunity, one local company has been attacking that space for years and has built quite a head of steam.

Zeacom, founded in 1994, released its Unified Communications Centre 4.1 product late last month. This combines the company’s two previous products, Zeacom Contact Centre and Zeacom Chorus. The company now has 110 staff and offices in Sydney, Melbourne, California and London, in addition to its head office in Auckland.

CEO Miles Valentine says even with the New Zealand dollar at 75 cents US, the advantages of working and undertaking research and development remain. Zeacom claims 2,400 customers, 250 in New Zealand, 700 in Australia, 900 in the US and 200 each in Asia and the UK as well as a smattering elsewhere around the world.

Locally, one customer is BMW, which in 2003 was operating an analogue telephony system, says IT operations manager Robert Willis, but found this was not an effective way to communicate with staff and dealerships. After six months of analysis and seeing a Zeacom demonstration in Australia the company decided to go ahead and implement.

BMW’s calls are primarily outbound rather than inbound. The system serves five call centre agents, 45 staff including sales and 20 staff in financial services. One of the great benefits for BMW was the presence function. While staff were apprehensive at first about others knowing where they were at any given time, the system was easy to use and increased flexibility.

Calls could be routed to other staff and new and temporary staff could be trained and in action quickly. The system is also integrated with CRM solutions such as the dealer management system and Goldmine.

Valentine says that is one of the major benefits of unified communications. Forty per cent of customers have database integration of some sort.

Another user is Palmerston North City Council. Business development executive Mike Manson says the full Zeacom suite runs across six buildings and depots including the library, art gallery and museum. Laboratories and the landfill are being added to the system, which services the Council’s catchment area of around half a million people. Forty three queues hit the call centre.

The system also allows simple functions, such as renewing library books and rates enquiries, to be automated. Manson says you can renew your books at 3am if you like.

Call routing is much easier with the presence function and duty officers can be pre-scheduled, with calls automatically routed to whoever is on-point at any given time. The system is also integrated with Microsoft Outlook and the council is implementing email queuing. Manson says 17 other local authorities have visited Palmerston North to see what the council is doing with VoIP and unified communications.

Among other functions commonly used are conferencing, with one-touch buttons, voice recording and the administration of multiple entities such as spin-off businesses.

Valentine says Microsoft will definitely become a player in the unified communications market. It may take the company two years or it may take it five, but it will be there.

Zeacom has been VC funded since 1999 and has close relationships with Telecom, NEC and other resellers. It targets the small- to medium-sized enterprise, with a target of 150 seats. However, the largest customer has 350 seats.

John Fontana contributed to this report

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