Unified communications (UC) is attracting big-hitters with initiatives that put the application on the desktop, helping business users do away with the need for multiple points of contact.
Microsoft has announced its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 software for VoIP, video, instant messaging (IM), conferencing and presence. IBM is also in the game with its Lotus Sametime 8.0 enterprise messaging collaboration platform, which is being integrated with IP telephony software from the likes of NEC.
Microsoft information worker group director, Tony Wilkinson, cited a trend towards software-based UC, which is opening the door for players such as Microsoft. Alongside its OCS platform, the vendor offers Office Communicator 2007 client software for phone, IM and video on the PC, mobile and browser, Live Meeting conferencing, RoundTable conferencing phone with a 360-degree camera, and Exchange Server 2007, which now supports voicemail, presence, Web conferencing and Live Meeting.
"We've got this history of collaborative products, in things like SharePoint, and we're integrating that across to UC ... And we're continuing to move towards standardisation of hardware," Wilkinson said.
He claimed people wanted seamless and unified communications they could use anywhere. Eventually, not too far into the future, users will be able to phone people just by using their name. A parallel exists online: you don't need to know a company's IP address to visit its Web page.
Remote working, coupled with secure hosting of technologies such as IM, are the big drivers behind UC, he said, and faster communication and collaboration meant better business risk management. Insurers with UC, for example, could IM each other to warn of storms coming to particular areas in real-time - defending themselves against last-minute insurers hoping to cash in.
"In such cases, just a couple of claims sneaking through can easily cause the loss of the whole system," Wilkinson said.
Brewery owner, Lion Nathan, adopted Microsoft UC last year, deploying OCS 2007 and RoundTable and integrating existing VoIP. Users can manage voice, email, IM and conferencing via a single interface with presence functionality. This has improved and sped up communications across the company and its 2800 geographically dispersed staff, according to Microsoft.
Now, mobile staff can manage their deskphones from their PCs, or anywhere with an Internet connection. Resources giant, BHP Billiton, also deployed integrated UC via OCS last year, and is saving travel costs by collaborating via VoIP and presence, Microsoft claimed. Previously, staff used various conferencing solutions, upping costs and security risks.
Educational institutions are also increasingly benefiting from UC, such as the University of Sydney, which recently adopted OCS via Exchange. IM and presence lets staff in its 17 departments know when and where colleagues are available. IM and Web conferencing make it easier to contact staff quickly and work collaboratively, often exchanging large files via email, whether locally or globally, Microsoft said.
"A lot of our partners in the past have been focused around the provision of desktop infrastructure, providing information for people using those systems. Add UC and all the different systems - IT, communications - come together, providing different revenue streams for partners," Wilkinson said.
One of Microsoft's partners on UC is IP telephony specialist, Avaya. Chief technology officer, Robbie Kruger, said Avaya had expanded its range to offer desktop applications that sat on thin clients, mobility solutions, collaboration solutions and speech access solutions for UC.
"UC is tools to help people collaborate more effectively," he said. "But in the last couple of years, the desktop has become more of a focal point for all modes of communication, via a range of solutions."
Vendors such as Polycom and Tandberg are integrating into one UC solution, while Microsoft and IBM focus on the desktop. Avaya itself, once heavy on enterprise solutions, had devolved to entry-level solutions too, including call-centric functionality via a single laptop screen, Kruger said.
People now want desktop, productivity and communication applications integrated into their own laptop or other mobile device, and to access information from whatever other gadgets they might have seamlessly on that single mobile device, anywhere, he said.
"But we're seeing a big push at the moment via the desktop, with Microsoft and IBM saying it's all about the apps," Kruger said.
Avaya UC can be set up to call one person and then connect them with another person - so the user never has to make a call, he said. Voicemails left on an office phone could be sent on as a .WAV file via email or SMS to a mobile device or laptop, and users can have access to LDAP corporate directory.
One-number capability means a message can find users anywhere. Users can also set the application to send messages from certain numbers to a specific number at different times of the day.
"We're embedding call centre capabilities into business processes. The central tool is our Communication Process Manager," Kruger added.