Unified Communications Divided

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In February, Datamonitor released a report titled "Trends to Watch 2008: Unified Communications." The study examined how cultural shifts in both the workplace and society—such as the proliferation of social networking sites and instant messaging—will bolster live deployments of unified communications (UC) within the enterprise. Until recently, UC has been a buzzword with little uptake and varying definitions among vendors, customers, and analysts, each with his own view of what UC actually entails.

Generally speaking, UC consolidates IM, email, SMS, voicemail, conferencing, and elements of presence, in which the caller knows where the contact is located and whether he’s most accessible by email, landline, or mobile.

Datamonitor isn’t alone in predicting an increased uptake in UC. In November 2007, Wainhouse Research released a report anticipating growth of the entire UC services market to $24.2 billion by 2012, with a compounded annual growth rate around 24.9 percent.

"I don’t think we’ll see a hockey stick by any means," says Wainhouse analyst Brent Kelly, who expects the market to jump from $8.8 million in 2007 to $11.7 million in 2008. "[Growth] will be slow and continual." Both Kelly and Aphrodite Brinsmead, the analyst who authored the Datamonitor report, believe increased adoption of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a major factor.

Additionally, the promise of Microsoft’s UC suite, which includes Microsoft Office Communications Server, Office Communicator, and Live Meeting, created a lot of hype well before its October 2007 release. "There’s definitely been a lot more publicity as Microsoft entered the market," Brinsmead says. "I don’t think the adoption will go up dramatically, but I do think UC will become more popular partly because of the publicity surrounding it."

Despite fresh public fervor, many UC solutions aren’t new. Even though IBM recently committed to spending $1 billion over the next three years to better leverage its Sametime with Lotus, the product is nearly a decade old and languished for years before IBM revamped it.

Often, vendors gild old applications with new technologies to qualify as UC. Last month, Siemens launched OpenScape Unified Communications Server. "It used to refer to Siemens’ unified client that ran on a desktop," Kelly says. "It used to require Microsoft’s Live Communications Server, and they’ve extracted that dependency."

Many UC solutions are a Frankensteinian collection of parts bundled into a single product. That there isn’t consensus regarding which parts to include accounts for a great deal of the confusion. For instance, Avaya incorporates an IP telephony platform, which is crucial for a successful UC application. Microsoft does not, though it fills missing components through strategic partnerships.

Further crowding the UC panorama are a slew of specialist vendors marketing UC solutions that really aren’t. "It’s standard marketing procedure that when there’s a buzzword, you try to mold your product so it fits in there," Kelly says. In February, for example, STT provider SpinVox released its Unified Communications Services. Yet the solution is primarily a unified messaging application called Enterprise Voicemail, which converts voicemail to text and delivers it via email or SMS. And last month, Aspect announced Unified Communications for the Contact Center. But the service wasn’t really a UC solution. "What we’re releasing is an integration into Microsoft Office Communications and IBM Sametime," says director of business practice marketing Tom Chamberlain. "We’re focusing our efforts on that ROI for those contact center operations as they need to extend into the enterprise."

Because enterprises still don’t know what to expect from UC, it’s occasionally difficult to justify the investment. "One of the inhibitors for enterprises is finding the budget and the business case," Brinsmead says. According to Kelly, more progressive enterprises approach UC as a way to increase productivity versus saving money. But the biggest unknown, he says, is how to invest in a solution that will be viable five years later.

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