Competition and cooperation rife in buoyant UM market

With the surge of interest in unified messaging (UM) technologies among larger enterprises, major contenders have adopted very different approaches to this market.

For instance, the UM game plan adopted by a key player, Cisco Systems Inc., can be summed up in four words: integrated selling and promotion.

In keeping with this strategy, the San Jose, Calif.-based company is:

-Moving away from selling individual servers and applications for IP-based communications and focusing instead on the system as a whole, including technical support services.

-On the marketing front, Cisco is bundling up its tools for all kinds of communication in enterprises and giving the set an appropriately broad brand name: the Cisco Unified Communications system. The range of products covers voice, e-mail, text, collaboration and videoconferencing capabilities, as well as the ability to reach the right person on the first try on no matter what device they are using through presence technology.

The cornerstone of this strategy, of course, is Cisco’s current IP Communications line up – namely its CallManager, Unity, MeetingPlace and IP Contact Center products.

New needs, new products

To these, the firm has added three major software products that address three separate user needs.

Cisco Unified Personal Communicator is designed to help users reach all their communications applications, such as voice calling, text messaging and videoconferencing, and move from one to another within the same desktop interface.

It lets them search existing directories, and see whether a contact is currently available and what device that person would prefer to use. Users can “click to call” from the directory to start a voice or videoconferencing session.

The Cisco Unified Presence Server collects information about users’ availability on various devices and publishes that information to Cisco IP phones, Cisco Personal Communicator and third-party services and applications such as Microsoft Corp. Live Communications Server 2005 and IBM Corp. Lotus Sametime.

The Customer Interaction Analyzer monitors calls in which a customer talks to a live agent or automated system in a call center. It uses information from those calls, such as tone of voice and keywords, to determine whether customers are getting what they need and are happy with the level of service.

The lessons gleaned can be used to direct subsequent calls, change procedures and train agents, according to Cisco. The system can be used with other vendors’ phones, including traditional circuit-switched phones.

Both Cisco and Microsoft Corp. are pushing hard to get their unified clients on the desktop, says Howard Anderson, a technology analyst and founder of Yankee Group and YankeeTek.

He says Cisco’s Unified Communicator and Microsoft’s MS Communicator essentially do the same thing. “Cisco comes at this from the enterprise communications view, Microsoft from its desktop pinnacle. They will fight it out at the desktop and server levels for presence.”

Unified Messaging technology is expected to get another shot in the arm later this year or in early 2007 when Microsoft releases Exchange 12, which will include a UM component.

“Users will benefit because they will no longer require a proprietary unified messaging server that has limited interoperability with voice servers but [one that] can support a mixed telephony environment of both IP and [time-division multiplexing] systems,” said Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge Mass., in a report titled “Unified Messaging Is On the Rebound.”

Standalone appliances

Also changing the UM landscape is the introduction of stand-alone appliances that pull voice into a single stream of data on a message server, says Herrell.

She cites systems from Cupertino, Calif.-based Adomo Inc. as an example.

Adomo offers voice messaging appliances that support 500, 1,000 or 2,000 users and can be stacked and clustered alongside private branch exchanges to convert voice streams into text-based Exchange data, according to a company representative.

IT executives at SI International Inc., a large government contractor in Reston, Va., plan to use Adomo appliances to help outfit a new office campus in Colorado Springs, Colo., says CIO Steve Hunt. Specifically, the company will interface Adomo’s voice mail appliance with an existing PBX from Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel and a local Microsoft Exchange server.

Like officials at many enterprises, SI International executives describe the company’s UM foray as serendipitous. “We did not create a unified messaging goal or objective. Instead, this strategy is being driven by more immediate and practical decisions,” says Hunt. “But our users love the ability to control the forwarding of their calls and the advantage of forwarding voice messages to their Microsoft Office mailbox.”

Marriages of convenience

Experts point out that by its very nature UM forces co-operation between players, as no single vendor owns every piece of the puzzle.

Strategic alliances are therefore the name of the game, and are being forged at different levels.

Some vendors are opening up their products to the outside developer community by adding native support for SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) and SIMPLE (SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions).

For instance, Cisco will verify that third-party applications and client devices work with Cisco’s SIP-compliant products.

Forrester’s Herrell believes this is a positive trend.

Though it is still immature, SIP will emerge as the glue that lets enterprises combine communication platforms and applications from many vendors, the analyst said. She said “SIP is going to force these vendors to stop being so proprietary.”

Herrell noted that Cisco and other network players are emphasizing overall systems but are also open to cooperation with software vendors such as Microsoft. “They want a common platform, but I’m not sure all the applications on that platform will be theirs.”

Cisco is also is deepening cooperation with Nokia Corp. for mobile IP calling at enterprise sites, allowing a softphone client being developed by Nokia to register as a client on CallManager. This will let employees use the softphone as they would a conventional enterprise phone, with features such as four-digit extensions.

Randy Cook, director of global voice networks at Oracle Corp., welcomes this adoption of SIP for call control. Use of the standard, instead of a proprietary protocol used previously, will allow for tighter integration with third-party software such as Oracle’s own applications, he said.

Cook is leading an aggressive rollout of IP telephony across the company, with Cisco’s CallManager at the heart of the system. About 30,000 Oracle employees already use CallManager, and they want a unified interface for multiple communications applications on their desktops, Cook said.

Another good move is the introduction of CallManager on a Linux-based hardware platform, Cook said. The appliance will run a hardened version of Linux based on a Red Hat Inc.’s distribution of the open-source OS. Cook said he would like to move the software off Windows to a more stable OS that is less plagued by viruses.