Challenge to define unified communication

It’s clear that unified communications is the buzzword du jour. Practically every enterprise is devising strategies for unified communications (or about to do so). As my colleague, Irwin Lazar, puts it in his blog: “The reality is that the worlds of telephony, video, IM, and collaboration are rapidly converging.”

There’s just one small catch: What, exactly, is unified communications? IP telephony vendors ( Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and so on) define it as “ VoIP with collaboration layered on top”. Traditional collaboration players (IBM, Microsoft ) define it as “collaboration with real-time communications thrown in.” And new entrants — such as Google — are defining it as a hosted application-layer service that you get from the Web.

If this is starting to sound like the proverbial three blind men and the elephant, that’s because it is. The exact definition of unified communications is in the eye of the beholder — and vendors all have limited perspectives.

I think it’s still a bit too early for a comprehensive definition of unified communications — that usually happens once a technology has transitioned from “emerging” to “emerged”. But there are a couple of things I can be confident about.

First is that voice is harder than it looks. I recently got into an interesting debate over whether voice is a desktop application. I’m not sure it is — for one thing, when I’m on the phone I’m usually away from my desktop, if that’s at all possible (I’m a pacer).

But that’s not really the point. Making real-time communications work reliably on a large scale is a slightly bigger challenge than the desktop vendors want to admit. The switching infrastructure and processes that telcos have built up over the years are truly formidable — and though VoIP changes the implementation of the solution, it doesn’t reduce the scale or scope of the problem. (Keep in mind that communications networks predate the transistor — VoIP is the fourth-generation technology in an architecture that started with human switching elements).

And although one should never bet against Microsoft, one of the few things the folks in Seattle never get quite right is networking (remember Netbios/Netbeui?). So despite the fact that Microsoft is trying hard to slow the progress of the VoIP vendors by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), I’m reluctant to concede that Microsoft’s won the game just yet.

A second thing I’m confident about: Whatever unified communications ultimately ends up meaning, the definition has to include mobile/wireless interfaces. And that’s another reason that voice isn’t just another desktop application — the desktop model of a standard operating system running a range of add-on applications doesn’t yet dominate the wireless universe (if it ever will).

I’m also confident that while Google may ultimately change the rules of the game, its current strategy is to out-FUD the FUDsters. In other words, Google’s actions are aimed at stalling Microsoft, not meeting real enterprise needs for unified communications.

Finally, I’m confident that unified communications space over the next few years will be really interesting. As always, it’s a fun time to be tracking telecom.

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