Communications Unified

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The Major League Baseball postseason may have just ended, but many people are already looking ahead to the spring, and, at least in the unified communications (UC) ballpark, all eyes will be on the New York Mets.

When the team from Queens opens its 2009 season at the new 42,000-seat Citi Field, a robust UC  solution combining technologies from Microsoft and Nortel Networks will also take the field. Team officials expect the solution, based on Microsoft’s Office Communications Server (OCS) and Nortel’s Communications Server 1000, Ethernet routing switches, wireless local area network products, contact center solutions, and other components from Nortel’s Global Services portfolio, to increase the pace of their day-to-day, behind-the-scenes business operations and fan services. The solution will include teleconferencing and unified messaging capabilities for more than 200 full-time team employees. Also included will be an IP telephony network for call center agents who handle ticket sales, as many as 250 Wi-Fi access points to support functions like wireless ticket scanning and letting fans order food and drinks from their seats, IPTV to broadcast game highlights and classic moments throughout the stadium, special multimedia communications, and a wireless local access network that will allow fans to access player statistics and more.

The team is also extending the solution to its minor league facilities in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where it holds spring training, as well as at KeySpan Park, home of its Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league affiliate, and its Baseball Academy in Boca Chica, the Dominican Republic.

The solutions "will seamlessly integrate technology into our business operations to help increase our productivity and service to fans," said Dave Howard, the team’s executive vice president of business operations, in a statement. He called it "state-of-the-art in ballpark design and technological innovation."

Mets officials and Nortel representatives will likely test and fine-tune the solutions during the next few months prior to Opening Day.

But while the Mets expect everything to be ready by April, the team is way ahead of the curve when it comes to UC adoption. Most enterprises that have expressed an interest in UC are nowhere near such well-defined dates for going live.

Building Interest
"We’ve seen a lot in the last six months where customers are talking about UC as something they want to do. We’re really early on in the idea of unified communications," says Hardy Myers, president and CEO of Applied Voice & Speech Technologies (AVST), a provider of voice and UC solutions. "Customers today are still trying to define [UC] in the context of their businesses."

Current research supports Myers’ assessment of the UC market.  

Despite the marketing hype and positioning by technology and solutions vendors, UC is still very much an emerging business strategy with limited market traction, according to research conducted earlier in the year by industry analyst firm IntelliCom Analytics.

The research firm found that UC applications accounted for just 6.4 percent of total business communications software product revenue in North America last year. These findings, included in IntelliCom’s "Market Performance Dashboard Full Year 2007 Report," were based on manufacturer revenue for enterprise collaboration solutions like Web conferencing, instant messaging, and presence management tools.

The same report projects modest growth—somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent—during the next two years, but then forecasts that UC revenue will rise to nearly 20 percent by 2012.

Actual numbers and percentages for UC adoption in the market vary. Fellow industry analysts at Frost & Sullivan predicted in September that the UC market would grow by 13 percent this year alone, reaching $4.55 billion in sales.

According to statistics compiled by Aberdeen Group for its recent "Unified Communications: Lifeblood of the Contact Center" report, nearly one-quarter of the more than 189 organizations surveyed indicated that UC has already been implemented in their contact centers, and an additional 50 percent of respondents stated that they are currently evaluating UC solutions for their contact centers.

"The trend is definitely toward adoption in the contact center," says Stephen Lawrence, a research associate in Aberdeen’s Customer Management Group and co-author of the report. "Half of the companies [in the Aberdeen survey] plan to implement [UC] in the next few years."

Adoption projections are not just brisk in the United States. In China, for example, China Computer World (CCW) Research predicts that the country’s UC market will increase from its present value of $747 million to $3.11 billion by 2012, with a compound annual growth rate of 46.4 percent.

In America and elsewhere, though, one of the main reasons for UC’s slow enterprise buy-in thus far has been a lack of clearly defined business benefits. "UC, itself, has only been around for a little while," Aberdeen’s Lawrence says. "The main thing we’ve found is a lack of understanding of what [UC] is and the benefits of it.

"Twenty-nine percent of the people just don’t understand it," he adds. "That’s a huge problem—nearly 30 percent of customers just don’t get the concept."

But those numbers are starting to swing in the other direction, according to many UC solutions vendors. "There is still a lot of confusion about what [UC] does and how it’s done," observes Mike Sheridan, senior vice president of strategy and marketing at Aspect Software, "but companies are trying to understand what it will mean for them: How will it benefit me? How can I fuse it to my business processes to benefit my customers? We’re seeing incredible interest [in UC] and it’s growing month over month."

Taking a Turn
That’s a huge turnaround in a short amount of time, according to Sheridan. "A year ago, we went to companies and no one knew about it. Now most people know," he says. "More people are talking about UC. Companies and their IT departments are engaging more to see what it means to them."

Doing so may not be so easy today. One of the toughest challenges any organization faces when deploying a UC solution is determining its return on investment (ROI). After buying new equipment and software, and then training employees in how to use the system, companies want to see a savings right away. But it doesn’t work that way. "The promise takes a while to achieve," Sheridan says.

Hard benefits come in the form of reduced costs related to equipment, staffing, and telecommunications—savings that can easily be spotted on a financial statement. Soft benefits, such as productivity boosts, are often much harder to discern.

Further complicating the ROI calculation is the potential for increased maintenance, global user training, and implementation.

So then the question becomes whether companies really see and understand the benefits, or if UC is just mere hype. At this point, most would argue in favor of the latter.

"If you look at the market, you would say that the hype for the last 18 months outran the reality," AVST’s Myers says. "[UC] has been a solution looking for a problem. We’re still in that phase of the market where people latched onto the vision early on."

And who’s to blame? Most look to the vendor community for that. "There was a lot of forward-selling of the vision without the reality," Myers admits. "For many, things were deployed too early, and the solutions did not meet the requirements of the customer."

Vendors may also be to blame for the lack of understanding of UC. "Some vendors have done the industry a disservice by putting something together, like an IP PBX, and calling it UC when it’s not really," Aspect’s Sheridan points out. "Everyone is positioning UC from their own strengths."

Aberdeen’s Lawrence agrees. "Some [vendors] are still confusing UC with unified messaging," he explains. A true unified communications platform includes unified messaging that integrates voicemail, fax, email, and text messaging in a single delivery method, but also combines it with Web, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), e-commerce, telepresence, mobile communications, and a convergence of data systems, he states.

Cost Concerns
Another big reason for UC’s slow adoption in the enterprise environment has been the sluggish economy, which has forced many companies to curtail spending on major IT projects.

At the same time, though, difficult economic times might push some companies closer to UC adoption, particularly as they look to scale back business travel expenditures. In this area, UC has already provided a business case, given that the conferencing and collaboration tools rolled into UC solutions can often eliminate the need for frequent face-to-face meetings.

Companies may now be more interested in UC’s ability to dramatically slash telephone expenses when communications are channeled through the far less-expensive VoIP networks that power most UC solutions. In some cases, it’s not unreasonable to expect to save as much as 25 percent alone in telephone toll charges, but depending on the situation, the savings can be significantly higher.

WesBanco, a Wheeling, W.Va.-based banking organization with 114 branches in the mid-Atlantic, for example, found that by implementing a UC solution from Cisco Systems, it could reduce local telephone call expenses by 63 percent, long-distance telephone costs by 69 percent, equipment and maintenance costs by 45 percent, leased-line expenses by 21 percent, and other communications-related expenses by 18 percent.

Florida Health Care Plans, a health-maintenance organization with 1,000 employees, also realized significant cost savings. Prior to its implementation of a Cisco UC solution, the organization had to maintain separate PBXs, billing, and calling plans at each of its 13 sites throughout central Florida. Routing calls to a central interactive voice response system from members all over the state trying to access services such as prescription refills was costing as much as $9,000 per month. By simply eliminating toll calls between locations, the organization cut its long-distance phone bill by almost half.

But, more often than not, capital projects get postponed when the economy is bad. Companies that had planned big IT projects are likely to scale back their plans and make smaller investments in quick fixes that will do the job for the time being.

Leaving a Legacy
That could end up costing them more later on. Depending on where they are in their technology adoption cycle, companies can spend a little or a lot to roll out a full, feature-rich UC solution. Much of the cost is affected by what a company wants UC to do; how many people, departments, or facilities will be involved; what technologies it already has in place; and a whole lot more.

"The amount of time and money that goes into a UC deployment correlates with what you have in place already," Lawrence states. "You need to make the most of the technologies you already have."

In addition, very few enterprises will do a wholesale replacement of things they’ve already bought, Myers adds. "Not many people today are going to throw out what they have, especially not in this tough economy," he says.

To that end, vendors and their clients alike will need to be sure that legacy applications and modern, cutting-edge applications work well together, advises Lawrence Byrd, director of unified communications architecture at Avaya. "That is how we add value. It has to work together. It has to be an integrated space," he says.

Thus, the challenge for IT personnel looking at UC solutions becomes one of interoperability. For UC, which involves communications-enabling business processes and integrating voice and data together on the same platform, the solutions need to be an amalgamation of different technologies, software, and processes, all programmed to operate seamlessly between telephony, groupware, and desktop applications.

And that often involves a multivendor, multifaceted strategy because currently no one standalone system or product suite  exists that delivers a full UC offering. The industry is bound by partnerships between vendors that each offer different pieces of a larger solution set.

That was the impetus for Aspect Software to seek out Microsoft’s Tellme Networks subsidiary when crafting a new UC offering geared toward contact center operators. The solution unites Aspect’s Unified IP solution, professional services, automatic call distributors, predictive dialers, hosted interactive voice response capabilities, and scripting with Tellme’s voice platform to improve self-service in the contact center.

Sheridan says integrating Unified IP with Tellme’s voice portal is a natural progression for his company’s ongoing UC strategy, which also includes a partnership with Microsoft that was first announced in March. Tellme’s offerings and capabilities "are a natural bridge for UC and contact centers," he says.

Barry Russell, director of Tellme’s Partner Group, also maintains that the combined offering is a natural fit. "Tellme believes this partnership with Aspect delivers an end-to-end solution for customers," he says.

And while companies like Microsoft, IBM, Nortel, Cisco, Avaya, Siemens, and other industry leaders in the UC space are known for creating business relationships with other vendors, the partnership mentality is new and necessary for Tellme. "A big change for Tellme is going forward with a partner-led movement," Russell adds. "To reach our goals and scales, we need to go with a partner-led model."

Stumbling Blocks
But for most enterprises, while they’re evaluating UC solutions, they’re not ready or willing to buy just yet. Only 38 percent of the companies involved in Aberdeen’s UC study had basic communications applications, such as phone, fax, email, and instant messaging, that were interoperable across the board, according to Lawrence.

"Making sure that you can transform information from a fax to an email and then to a text message is [a critical first step]," he says. "And then you need to implement presence, so you know if the person is busy or available to talk, across all those channels."

It takes time to get the infrastructure in place, Myers adds, noting that many companies are at that stage right now. "Many things are happening in parallel. Companies are getting their email systems in place, VoIP in place, etc.," he says. "We expect to see people in the near term looking at decisions for what their infrastructure and systems will look like."

That will be a key element going forward, particularly as many organizations look to replace their existing equipment. "There are many things that need to be replaced right now," Myers says. "Some PBXs are 10 to 15 years old."

Once that is established, the next critical step in the process is for companies to align corporate responsibilities, policies, and procedures to fit into the UC structure. Look around most corporate boardrooms and you are likely to find a fundamental disconnect between where voice application decision-making takes place and the areas where the benefits of UC applications are likely to be the most compelling. In fact, Aberdeen data revealed that 46 percent of companies that implemented a UC architecture in their contact centers suffered from improper and misaligned policies, procedures, and governance. Many of those companies "implemented based solely on directives from headquarters," without clearly establishing goals, objectives, and the metrics needed to see if they were being met, Lawrence states. "You need to implement governance of the internal organization to cover workflow, job responsibilities, and to make sure you are using the technologies at the right time and in the right way."

But that is only one of the major challenges enterprises face today when it comes to UC deployments. Because no two deployments will be alike, and no one size will fit all operations, finding industry benchmarks against which to measure oneself is nearly impossible today. Each deployment introduces a complex architecture made up of many different solutions that do many different things. People’s roles are different from company to company. And, more important, each application is—or at least should be—customized with the right set of tools that optimize a particular way of working for a particular group of employees.

"There’s a lot going on that is not as simple as it used to be," Myers says. "When you think about UC, there’s a certain level of customization and enterprise-specific integration that must be done."

As the New York Mets may soon discover, with a little forethought and planning, a UC solution can meet success in time. This will happen as long as companies are willing to transform their infrastructures, information platforms, corporate policies and procedures. And, unlike the Mets, they can do so without bringing in the bulldozers.

UC for the Mobile SMB

While the strength of a true unified communications (UC) solution lies in its ability to bring communications across telephone channels—landline, cellular, satellite, Internet, etc.—onto a single platform, a number of smaller vendors have recently been launching scaled-down UC solutions that target mobile devices exclusively. These solutions are also typically geared toward small and midsize businesses (SMBs) that want an enterprise-class UC solution at a fraction of the price.

One such provider is Zeacom. The company recently unveiled an Executive Mobile module to its Zeacom Communications Center (ZCC) 5.1 platform. Executive Mobile empowers companies with some advanced UC functionality on their BlackBerrys or Windows Mobile-compatible devices.

Capabilities include the ability to manage telepresence, messaging, and directories; view call histories; interface with mailboxes to view and respond to messages; and remotely access the ZCC desktop and other applications. ZCC also provides contact center, blended out-dialing, interactive voice response, operator console, mobility, conferencing, and Microsoft calendar and Outlook integration on one server using a single administration interface.

CallWave released a mobile UC product based on technologies gained during its recent acquisition of WebMessenger. Built on CallWave’s WebMessenger Mobile for Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS), users of Apple’s iPhone and select BlackBerry or Nokia eSeries smartphones can see which colleagues are online at any given time, choose from a variety of communications options, including phone, text message, or email, and escalate chat sessions to VoIP calls and conferences.

A similar offering from SimpleSignal, called SimplyMobile, enables users to manage their calendar, email, and contact items in Microsoft Outlook, translates email from text to speech, and allows users to call contacts, all via voice commands over their mobile phones.
"Mobility is key to the future of unified communications," said Joe Naylor, senior vice president of sales at CallWave, in a statement. "As enterprise adoption of desktop unified communications tools ramps, pressure is mounting on IT to extend the same capabilities to mobile professionals."

Ernie Wallerstein, Zeacom’s president, agrees. "The 21st century executive is a mobile executive, who must not only be accessible 24/7, regardless of location, but is also someone who must be able to utilize desktop enterprise communications software while on the road," he said at the product launch in September.

These are just three of the many similar systems that have entered the market of late, but few have made much of a market impact yet, according to Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta-based independent telecommunications industry analyst.

"We have been hearing about these combined services several times over the last 10 years," Kagan says. "Each time they get a little better. [But] the service providers have never really burst into the general marketplace in a big way, although the idea is sound."

New market entrants face challenges related to the cost of the services, generally weak demand, and reluctance of prospects to change from existing services, according to Kagan. "Will it be successful? Will the customer finally realize there are new ways to do things? Will these small companies ever have the marketing and advertising budgets to let the world know? These are some of the big questions."

Such solutions are good ideas, but have yet to become very popular, Kagan adds. "Some of these have customer groups that keep them in business, but they have never grown past that niche yet," he says. —By Leonard Klie, with additional reporting by Phil Britt.

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