You're in a cab and need to make immediate contact with co-workers. You have a 10-person conference call in about a minute and need to get your latest emails in preparation for the meeting. No worries. With the power of unified communications (UC), this is a no-brainer. Presence technology, or click-to-call, is at the heart of the UC concept and enabling on-the-go communication scenarios like those above. UC gives users converged communication and collaboration services including presence, Web, voice, video, messaging, and telephony, all accessible through a coherent experience.
With UC, users can right click to call while using email, launch a phone call by selecting a telephone number from a Word document, or dial straight from a website. And that's just scratching the surface, experts say. Essentially, a call can reach you wherever you are, on any device, and office functionality is at your fingertips.
UC is a combination of equipment, software and services tied together to enhance individual, workgroup and organisational productivity, enabling control and management of multiple enterprise communication methods. According to Gartner, the technology comes in three flavours: bundled in a single solution (Nortel's approach); as a broad portfolio of separate communication functions all tied together through shared services such as presence, administration and directories (Cisco and Microsoft's strategy); or as a common communications framework or middleware that can be used by unrelated applications (IBM and Oracle's model).
"UC brings together different modes of communication including email, phone, fax and IM, in one place," Microsoft Asia-Pacific, unified communications general manager, Ben Graetz, said. "It makes it easier to use different systems, makes workers more productive, and reduces administration costs."
Graetz said the core building blocks of Microsoft's concept included Exchange and Active Directory. "Organisations today use different directories for email, voicemail and phone systems, and managing each can be costly. Using one directory brings efficiency and cost savings," he said. "Standardising on Active Directory and Exchange is the first step and the core infrastructure. From that base, users can add and expand out the capacity of the system."
A simple case
Analysts tell us UC promises to simplify business processes, improve customer service, and increase productivity and profitability. It aims to get rid of the communication silos and reduce delays in accessing and communicating with others.
IDC telecommunications associate analyst, Yue Vivian Li, defines UC as a software infrastructure platform that consolidates directory, routing, and management of communications across a growing set of applications. These include advanced IP telephony calling and management; Web, audio- and videoconferencing; instant messaging; and pervasive presence management and awareness. All are accessible through desktop and mobile devices and as functions available to business applications developers.
The worldwide UC market was worth $US19.3 billion last year. This incorporated IP PBX, hardware desktop IP phones, conferencing applications, instant messaging applications, integrated collaborative environments, unified messaging, soft switches, media gateways, mobile enterprise applications, VoIP support services, WAN application delivery, hosted IP services, VoIP management solutions, and wireless business services revenue.
Li said UC solutions are poised to transform enterprise communications. "It will change the way we work and communicate," she said.
Despite its rapid maturity, the technology is at an early stage and adoption of converged solutions is slow. Li said the growing uptake of IP telephony, along with the high mobility and communication needs pushed by Generation Y entering the workforce, would fuel market uptake of UC solutions.
3D Networks CEO, Chris Luxford, argued true UC was still about six months away.
"There's been an interesting evolution in the last couple of years," he said. "Two or three years ago, IP telephony and VoIP were the main buzz words. Now it's about using unified communications. There's a signify cant install base of IP telephony and they are looking to expand functionality."
Luxford said IP telephony was still the foundation for most discussions. There was also still lots of work to be done with integration and open standards.
"Customers today are generally buying IP telephony with a view towards implementing UC down the road," he said. "Less than 10 per cent of customers are buying UC.