Would You Do This?

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As today's workforces become increasingly mobile, the average employee can get more than 50 messages a day on up to seven different devices—desk, home, and mobile phones, pagers, PDAs, laptops, and PCs—and in many different formats or applications. With so many devices and communications methodologies at his disposal, he can easily become overwhelmed by the complexities of managing multiple phone numbers, voicemail and email inboxes, user identities, passcodes, and device requirements.

"With today's communications explosion, who has time to check multiple inboxes for new messages?" asks Victor Foia, president and CEO of Active Voice, a unified messaging solutions provider.

And it's no picnic for the people who need to get a hold of him in a hurry. Time and personnel are wasted calling and leaving voice messages, typing and sending emails and text messages, reading out-of-office replies, and waiting for a response.

A communications strategy, called unified communications, has the potential to merge voice, data, and multimedia solutions onto a single platform. That one system can manage phone— mobile, land line, or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) softphone; email; fax; voice, text, and instant messaging; voice, video, and Web conferencing; presence detection; calendaring; contact lists; address books; and much more, and link them to an enterprise's traditional Web and desktop applications.

"Unified communications solutions eliminate the technology silos and integrate applications to provide richer functionality for existing desktop and communications applications," says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Organizations achieve tangible savings by reducing communications obstacles caused by a distributed workforce and can respond more quickly to customers and time-critical situations."

"If I'm using integrated, open communications, I can see with one view how best to communicate with my entire professional team directly out of my [customer relationship management application]. There's no need to break my workflow or quit out of applications to access it," explains Matt Blumenthal, global business development manager at Siemens Communications.

"Previously, you had data and you had voice. Now, you can have data, voice, and business applications on one device or desktop, and use the same software to work with all the different devices," says Manoj Fernando, co-founder and executive vice president of business development at software vendor LiteScape Technologies.

In this environment, unified communications has become such a buzzword that just about every vendor who is somehow involved in the telecommunications and business software industries has touted some form of unified communications product or suite of products. Besides Siemens, Active Voice, and LiteScape, other vendors that have emerged with some share in the market include Alcatel, Avaya, AVST, Cisco Systems, Ericsson, Genesys Laboratories, IBM, Interactive Intelligence, Microsoft, Mitel, NEC, Nortel, Oracle, SAP, and Teleware. Among them, Microsoft, Siemens, and Avaya are advancing their leadership positions in unified communications with major product releases that could forever change the way companies communicate.

Microsoft late last year put the early stages of its unified communications offering, centered around the 2007 Microsoft Office suite and Exchange Server 2007, out for beta testing to corporate customers. It released the Office 2007 suite, one of the key components of its unified communications offering, Jan. 30, and expects to begin fielding its entire unified communications solution in the summer. Among companies involved in the beta tests were Guardian Management, a real estate and investment management firm based in Portland, Ore.

Guardian has about 500 employees, many of whom spend a lot of time on the road. "I wanted to reduce the cost of supporting mobile devices," explains Will Wilson, its IT director, "but, on a larger scale, I wanted to make our entire messaging solution— phone, email, and voicemail—more efficient."

"I consider Exchange Server 2007 a huge step in the right direction," he says. "The remote users who receive all of their content exclusively using Office Outlook Web Access love the enhancements to the interface."

Avaya was due to release two additions to its suite of unified communications products last month. Avaya IP Softphone Support for IBM Lotus Sametime will allow users to click-to-call from Lotus Sametime client and contact lists and includes features like call transfer, hold, directory access and six-party conferencing. Modular Messaging 3.1 allows users to merge voicemail and email messages. When used with Avaya one-X speech, Modular Messaging users will have hands-free, eyes-free, speaker-independent access to email, voicemail, and calendars from any phone and will be able to initiate conference calls simply by telling the system to dial people from a Lotus Notes contact list or corporate directory.

"Avaya's unified communication strategy focuses on enabling end users to access all of their communications capabilities in a coordinated way, from wherever they may be located and from whatever device they may be using," says Eileen Rudden, the company's vice president and general manager of unified communications.

Siemens released its latest version of the HiPath Xpressions unified messaging solution Feb. 5. Version 5.0 allows enterprise users to access and manage all of their voice, email, and fax messages from a single inbox that can be accessed via email client, Web browser, or phone.

"The solution provides a powerful tool for businesses with highly mobile workforces, multiple offices in dispersed geographical areas, and a large volume of time-critical projects. These

A Collection of Vendors

Communications and business software vendors that have a stake in the unified communications market, albeit to very varying degrees, include the following: Active Voice— Kinesis is a unified messaging solution.

Alcatel— OmniTouch UC suite (consisting of MyPhone, MyMessaging, MyAssistant, and MyTeamwork) when combined with its OmniPCX Enterprise, offers comprehensive messaging, directory, presence information, call routing, fixed and mobile device support, and Web and video conferencing integration.

Avaya— Through a partnership with IBM, its Unified Communications products offer telephony and support for email, calendars, directories, unified messaging, conferencing, and advanced desktop call features, like presence, messaging, and meeting exchange.

AVST— CallXpress offers voicemail, unified messaging, real-time voice control and access to live calls, calendaring, directory and notification.

Cisco Systems— Cisco Unified is the brand prefix given to Call Manager, for call processing, Unity for unified messaging, Meeting Place for conferencing, and Presence Server for presence and contact preferencing.

Ericsson— The IP Multimedia Subsystem, OnePhone enterprise communications solution, and MX-ONE server-based IP telephony services offer phone, personal assistant, contact center, and unified messaging capabilities. Genesys— Genesys Enterprise Telephony Software (GETS) is based on its computer telephony integration middleware for desktop call control and routing.

IBM— Unified communications are based on capabilities within Lotus Notes/Domino and Lotus Sametime platforms. They include instant messaging, email, conferencing, presence, and contact management. IBM also has a partner ecosystem that includes more than 100 vendors that offer advanced telephony functionalities. Interactive Intelligence— Communité offers voicemail, unified messaging, presence management, and call routing.

LiteScape Technologies— OnCast is a layer of middleware to integrate business applications and IP devices.

Microsoft— Unified communications solutions are based on the Office suite of products and will bring together email, calendaring, directory, and unified messaging offerings found in Outlook, Exchange Server and Speech Server. Other applications and devices that will be involved include Office Communicator 2007, Communications Server 2007, Office Live Meeting, Office RoundTable, Office SharePoint Server 2007, and Exchange Server 2007, which will offer a speech-based auto attendant that can be accessed from any phone. A unique partnership with Nortel adds VoIP and wireless telephony and networking capabilities.

Mitel Networks— Live Business Gateway offers softphone capabilities, call management, presence detection, messaging, and conferencing.

NEC— The OpenWorX Communications Portal brings Web, email, and messaging access to its PBXs. The Personal Call Assistant offers call management and conferencing capabilities.

Nortel— In addition to services offered as a result of its partnership with Microsoft, its own service offerings are based on the MCS 5100, which provides telephony and networking services, conferencing, call control, presence, and messaging.

Oracle— The Collaboration Suite and Communications and Mobility Server combine to offer VoIP and video call control, conferencing, presence, instant messaging, email, and voicemail functionalities.

Siemens— HiPath offers IP and CTI integration, call routing, presence, conferencing, and unified messaging that allows clients to access and manage voice, email, and fax messages from any email client, Web browser, or phone.

Teleware— The Intelligent Office Suite includes presence, routing, call assistant, messaging, and conferencing functionality. The company also offers PDA- and PC-based softphones.

enterprises benefit from the real-time, on-demand access to people and messages that HiPath Xpressions enables, improving interaction with and responsiveness to customers," says Eve Aretakis, CEO of Siemens Communications.

Siemens also will begin beta testing for a new version of its HiPath OpenScape platform for the IBM Lotus Notes/Domino and Lotus Sametime environment this spring. The final version should be available later this year.

Siemens' HiPath solution has been working on Microsoft's Live Communications Server (the precursor to its forthcoming Office Communicator and Exchange servers) for a while.

"Voice, email, instant messaging, conferencing, etc.—we can aggregate them all by integrating them into whatever infrastructure you have in place today," Blumenthal says. "Siemens provides open communications software that breaks down the silos that currently exist between people, processes, applications, and communications. By integrating the capability to communicate in real time across all media directly from primary business applications, we are enabling the infusion of context-sensitive communications directly into the business process."

Users of the Microsoft solution will have the same benefit. Once the solution is finalized, workers will be able to instantly launch a phone call from Office applications, such as Word, Outlook, or Communicator, by simply clicking on a colleague's name to determine his or her availability. Other Office applications that will be involved include Office Communicator, Office Live Meeting, Office RoundTable, and Office SharePoint, all linked to applications in its Speech Server, Communications Server, and the Exchange Server 2007. The solution will also deliver a unified inbox for email, voicemail, and faxes. Through Outlook Voice Access and other speech recognition programs, mobile employees will be able to access their email and voicemail boxes, calendars, and directories, initiate phone calls and instant messaging, and dictate email messages, all through a single phone line. A unique partnership with Nortel brings VoIP and wireless telephony, networking, and other capabilities into the mix.

"Once people understand what's included in Microsoft's platform, they begin to see that to replicate all that functionality would require them to go out and bring together technologies from three or four different vendors just to equal what's already available with Exchange Server 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007," says Jay Lendl of Fujitsu Consulting, the U.S. consulting and services arm of the Fujitsu Group and a Microsoft strategic global systems integrator.

"Through software, we can transform business communications by integrating voice communications with the powerful communications and collaboration experiences provided by Microsoft," says Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division.

Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, agrees. "We believe that the software approach enables us to deliver better manageability, more economical voice communications and greater opportunities for innovation to our customers," he says. "We're confident that some of the biggest returns on customers' investments in unified voice technologies will come from integrating communications with the business processes and business applications that people already have. Rather than maintaining VoIP as a separate infrastructure from email, IM, and other forms of communications, Microsoft can provide a single platform to integrate all these forms of communications and support rich integration among them."

Check the Roadmap
Other vendors have far different marketing strategies for their unified communications offerings. In fact, to date there's been little unity when it comes to unified communications. It means different things to different people, and "vendors have differing marketing approaches to delivering UC solutions," Herrell maintains.

"Some vendors are in the development stages for UC and offer multiple products that are not fully integrated into a UC platform but share services across multiple technologies or are connected through middleware," she explains further. "Others, such as Microsoft, Nortel, and Siemens, offer a more integrated software solution."

Bern Elliott, an industry analyst at Gartner, has identified three general approaches that vendors have taken toward unified communications:

1. Bundle much of the functionality tightly together in a single solution;
2. Take a broad portfolio of separate communication functions and tie them together through shared services; or
3. Offer a common communications framework or middleware that can then be used by different, unrelated communications applications.

Each, he says, has its own merits for different end-user types. "The bundled approach makes it easier to offer a solution at a departmental or workgroup level and is useful for pilots or trials because the overall expense and commitment is low. The broad, established portfolio approach is useful to companies that already have a strong commitment to a particular vendor, so the approach allows an existing significant investment to be used. Finally, the framework approach is particularly effective when building a communications solution that fits into a broader Web services or business application environment."

"No vendor demonstrates equal strength for both telephony and asynchronous collaboration communications," Herrell says. "The result is multiple partnerships among communications providers and collaboration platform vendors."

But all that talk of partnerships may not be what the end user wants to hear. "A lot of customers tell us they want to migrate to a smaller number of trusted vendors," says Tim Bakke, product manager for enterprise messaging and collaboration at Avtex, a systems integrator for unified messaging, contact center, and IP telephony. "Reducing the number of third-party vendors in a company's technology and telecommunications infrastructure doesn't just provide savings in support costs and decreased IT overhead, it can also enhance productivity."

Slow to Adopt
Furthermore, all those partnerships and integration issues may be part of the reason that the unified communications waters have been so murky for end users. For companies just starting to explore unified communications, it may be hard to know which vendors offer features directly and which ones partner with other vendors for those features.

Things to Look At

Companies looking to implement a unified communications solution need to first consider the following:

  • Determine which groups of users will benefit most, because not everyone in every enterprise needs all the features of a full implementation. Remote workers and business travelers have the most to gain.
  • Build on existing IP and collaboration platform investments.
  • Identify ownership and support requirements, because UC brings together many disparate entities, including network operations, telecommunications, server and hardware platforms, software, and business applications.
  • Look at the vendors' roadmaps (including partnerships, products, etc.).
  • Examine the project's broader IT picture, and what will be needed (including security, administration, hardware, software, etc.).
  • Invest in employee training prior to launching any solution.

"You need to understand what vendors are doing, and with whom," Herrell says. "You have to look at how vendors are bringing their products to market, and how they interface with other companies' products."

But despite emerging interest among vendors, unified communications as a whole is still very immature, and thus, adoption has been slow. Many end users today have individual components of a unified communications package, but almost none have anything that is even loosely tied together under a unified communications umbrella. "With VoIP, conferencing, instant messaging, email, calendaring, voicemail, etc., when you look at them as stand-alone applications, the market is huge," Herrell says. "But, as a collaborative effort, that's something else."

She further notes that many deployments "are currently only loosely connected by shared services and not yet fully integrated," and "many products lack the ability to fully interoperate."

A recent study by the Aberdeen Group involving more than 220 firms confirmed that. Sixty-six percent of organizations reported having at least five disparate and unconnected unified communications applications, and 37.5 percent have implemented as many as seven of them.

Further research by Wainhouse Research suggests that although a large number of companies employ some form of IP-telephony—one of the basic backbones of most unified communications technologies—only 7 percent have implemented it to more than 90 percent of their workforces, and only 11 percent have implemented it for more than half of their employees. Nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, have less than a quarter of their workforces using it.

Aberdeen's research also revealed that while 48 percent of firms expect to implement some level of unified communications this year, 10 percent had no formal strategy whatsoever for unified communications. Among reasons, the firms with no plans cited a lack of knowledge about the subject, implementation costs, concerns over managing so many disparate solutions, and an unproven business case.

"A large segment of the market is still looking at what's available and what are the real improvements to their businesses as a result of adopting unified communications," admits Siemens' Blumenthal.

But, "It does seem to be gelling more as the industry comes to understand what can be accomplished. It's definitely evolving, and we're seeing a greater understanding of how companies can bundle all their communications media on one platform," he says. "I think we're going to see a bigger percentage of the market adopting unified communications in general, whether it means taking different aspects and deploying them to different users or delivering the full picture to everyone. We're going to see an uptick in the market as people see how much easier it is to just click to communicate with a person."

"People are already using it in parts. It's not a question of whether they will do it, it's at what level and which channels they will bring together first," concludes Gartner's Elliott.

"Most companies have a lot of the functionality already, so they're not looking to buy anything new, but to bring them all together so they can have a better use of their applications," adds Forrester Research's Herrell.


Finance May Have the Most to Gain

Businesses where there is a high degree of collaboration, where the workforce is scattered, where there is a high degree of technology available, and where communication is a competitive differentiator stand the most to gain by adopting a unified communications strategy, according to solution vendors and industry analysts alike.

Nowhere do those factors converge more than in the highly competitive financial services industry. Lending is a highly competitive business, and banks that are agile and process loans more efficiently can manage more loans with the same number of people, providing them with a competitive advantage.

Throughout the lending process, loan representatives need to coordinate many activities and a great deal of information with customers and loan officers. For small, self-contained banks, this usually involves walking into a neighboring office and conducting a face-to-face meeting. These banks probably wouldn't stand to benefit from a unified communications offering. For mid-sized and large banks, though, multiple loan officers may be involved in the loan process, and loan reps may have to go back to the customer for more information several times.

"Banks that continue with inefficient response to customer loan requests are at risk from other institutions that use unified communications, combining email response with collaborative sessions, to make decisions more efficiently and to lower costs in processing loans," says Elizabeth Herrell, an analyst at Forrester Research, which conducted a survey of the banking industry and its use of unified communications.

In the survey, loan reps estimated that they could save four or more hours per loan if they had immediate contact with superiors for a decision. Not only would that mean a faster response to customers, but, quite simply, that's time that could be spent processing more loan applications.

"In banking, lost time is lost money, and the ability to get hold of a person quickly could make the difference in getting the loan or not," Herrell says.

Additional benefits cited in the Forrester survey include:

  • An overall boost in productivity;
  • An increase in decision turnaround time; and
  • An improved customer experience.

"Particularly in financial services, where you have a lot of information coming at a large group of individuals at a fast pace, being able to take the information you need and collaborate with the right people at the right time would definitely help the process," says Matt Blumenthal, a global business development director at Siemens Communications.

In fact, Siemens in early January released a customized version of its HiPath OpenScape solution for the financial services market. The solution is being marketed as part of Salesforce.com's financial services AppExchange. "By adding Siemens OpenScape to their Salesforce[.com] implementations, financial services customers can seamlessly manage their communications as easily as they manage their sales contacts," says Tien Tzuo, chief strategy officer at Salesforce.com. -----L.K.

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