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Unified communications (UC) products hold out a great deal of promise for organizations seeking to integrate and manage voice, data and video.

However, analysts warn all UC offerings are “works-in-progress” and prospective buyers need to be cautious.

“The concept of UC is still new,” says Jon Arnold, principal of J Arnold and Associates, an Internet Protocol (IP) communications research firm in Toronto. “To receive its promised [benefits] of connectivity, communication, collaboration and community, you need to be flexible and willing to take some risks.”

Unified communication is a method of integrating communication streams such as fax, data, e-mail, voice and video within a single “In-box” accessible from a variety of devices.

The common interface , provided by UC systems, is ideal for enterprises with a mobile or dispersed workforce.

Unified communications is an improvement over unified messaging , which does not offer integration across varied modes of communication and has no real-time capability, according to Arnold, who spoke at this week’s IT360 Conference in Toronto.

In his presentation titled Unified Communications: Think Again, Arnold said “determining the right buying criteria” for UC products is a challenge for most organizations.

“Traditional ROI (return on investment) metrics and models are difficult to apply to UC.”

Key drivers

The growing number virtual organizations and mobile employees –supported by devices such as cellular phones, laptops and other IP and WiFi-enabled gadgets – are driving the need for UC, according to Arnold.

Other drivers, he said, are “the need for collaboration across devices and regions, as well as the blurring of home and work life.”

Communication streams in most companies, Arnold said, are segregated into silos, and have been rendered inefficient by multiple communication modes. “We have too many Inboxes, numbers, identities, and passwords in the workplace”

He said businesses have found it very difficult to integrate these silos because of closed systems, standards and vendor interoperability issues. Users, he said, face a couple of paradoxes.

The more communication tools they have:

• The more difficult it is for people to reach them; and,

• The more they spend time managing devices rather than on actual communication.

Four compelling Cs

Unified communications’ systems should provide organizations with the ability to develop what Arnold calls the Four Cs (connectivity, communication, collaboration and community).

By setting rules, permissions and priorities that support access to various communication streams from a single Inbox, UC allows seamless interaction.

“Imagine contacting someone via instant messaging, then moving your conversation to e-mail, teleconference, and even video conference at the flick of a switch”.

He said this UC capability is enabled by Web 2.0 applications and IP telephony devices that offer greater user control and customization. According to Arnold, the benefits of a UC system include: simplified communication and IT management, improved teamwork, reduced travel requirements, better collaboration and more efficient business processes.

Two Basic Routes

Companies contemplating UC adoption have two basic paths to choose from, as current UC systems are either hardware- or software-based, Arnold noted.

He said hardware-based UC product vendors include Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and Siemens, as well as MetaSwitch of Alameda, Calif.

Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP, Google, Yahoo and Skype provide software-based products.

Arnold said private branch exchange (PBX) vendors, such as Nortel and Avaya, offer “tried and true” voice products and have rich partner ecosystems with varying degrees of integration with Microsoft software.

While Arnold divided vendors into two groups, another Canadian analyst suggested business would not limit themselves to a single group of products.

“In the real world, companies will use a combination of hardware and software products in their UC platforms,” said Jayanth Angl, research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group Inc. in London, Ont.

Some vendors, he said, are forging partnerships to meet this need for a mix of products.

He cited the recent alliance between Nortel and Microsoft.

The two companies unveiled a comprehensive road map for a “shared vision for unified communications (UC) .

At the moment, Jayanth said, “Microsoft, IBM and Cisco are the key players in the UC space.”

Arnold agrees: “Cisco owns the customers for data networking, while Microsoft dominates the desktops.”

But both companies, he said, have their own shortcomings: “Cisco is not known for apps and services, while Microsoft is a new – and unproven voice – in the VoIP (voice over IP) space.”

Early days

Unified communication is still in its early stages of development and adoption.

“The solutions are coming together just now,” Angl said. He said there’s a great deal of hype, and buyers need to be cautious, as some vendors tend to indiscriminately, and inappropriately use the “unified communications” label for their products.

Widespread adoption of UC will most probably take more than five years, he added.

The nature of UC makes if very difficult to quantify benefits obtained from the system, according to the Info-Tech analyst.

“The key benefit is user productivity which is very hard to quantify.”

Before jumping on the UC bandwagon, Angl suggests companies wait for further developments or risk being stuck with a “dead-end product”. Organizations considering UC should “concentrate on what part of their business will benefit from the deployment.”

Arnold too provided some points for reflection for companies on the UC path:

• As voice and telecom become increasingly integrated by IP technology, the old PBX paradigm will become less relevant

• UC is beyond voice/data integration. To benefit from UC, you must have a clear idea of what you want to do with it

• UC solutions can come from a wide variety of sources, so be open minded

• Concentrate on what’s best for your business and your people, be flexible

• Think about the user experience. UC is about connecting people, not devices or endpoints.

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