Unified we stand

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.

Communications anywhere

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.

Option expansion

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.

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Getting the facts

UC is also proving useful for companies that need agility. Listed companies that must keep an eye on share price fluctuations, for instance, can use Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to find out where senior executives are, give them a call or message them and invite them to a conference call five minutes after a plunge or surge in their shares. Avaya's conference solution could set up a concall, and monitor who was on the line, he said. "We still do emails and SMS but we're trying to reduce human error and latency," Kruger said. "We have all our tools working together."

Microsoft, according to Kruger, has good point solutions, but needs to get them working together on multiple sites and handling large files. "They have the interface, but we provide the additional functionality. We're backwards-compatible, so we provide ROI," he said. Organisations don't want to have to upgrade everything now, but with a Microsoft and Avaya solution they can start the ball rolling and use existing infrastructure with an eye to future needs. And opportunities exist for third-parties to get a slice, with Avaya introducing three new programs and education sessions for resellers selling different parts of UC.

"We're looking for partners to work together with some of these new world applications; large solution providers or key resellers," Kruger said.

Zeacom country manager, Michael Petrucelli, said 45 per cent of its 700 contact centre customer sites in Australia, incorporating 21,000 seats, had deployed software with rich presence. He agreed users were looking to connect with other users seamlessly and efficiently, using multiple media and with lowered latency. Increasingly, that was via an application on the desktop, he said.

"We think the phenomenon is being given considerable help by the big guys [IBM, Cisco and Microsoft, for example], and we think it's great for users that those guys are jumping on the UC bandwagon and creating new apps," Petrucelli said.

Zeacom is also working on integration with OCS, which should be in the fifth release of its Zeacom Communication Centre software in March or April. The product suits 10-20 contact centre seats and up and is compatible with Cisco Call Manager and the Avaya platform.

SMEs are opting for UC that lets them do everything using a single desktop, with excellent reporting facilities and a Microsoft platform, without having to get out the big guns from the likes of Genesys or Avaya, Petrucelli said.

The Australian base of Scandinavian home appliance-maker, Asko, recently added UC via the Zeacom Communications Center (ZCC). The ZCC Agent Desktop and Executive Desktop displays real-time information about queues and the status of other staff. Rich presence means users get communications anywhere, and one interface handles landline, mobile, email, fax, IM and Web communications.

Voicemail, previously only available to Melbourne staff due to the limitations of its various telephone systems, was rolled out to all Asko employees and is now accessible via PC. Staff enter the first few letters of a name in the database and it will be matched to the phone number.

ShoreTel South-East Asia regional manager, Tony Warhurst, said its UC interface, Personal Call Manager (PCM), is being combined with Microsoft and IBM offerings. "The one thing I'm seeing is that people want one app that does pretty much what they want. They want it all integrated," he said.

ShoreTel is looking at integrating high-definition video on PCM to boost conferencing quality. When video quality is bad, Warhurst said, the human eye tended to try and compensate, causing eye strain and an allaround bad experience.

PCM also has a Web dialler application that lets users simply click on a phone number in a document or online to call. CRM integration, with, is also on line. However, not everybody wants all the features in UC.

"People say, 'I don't want to do video today but I want a platform that is capable of supporting it in future in case my bandwidth changes'," Warhurst said.

Customer choices

Service provider, GlobalConnect, is an Avaya and Polycom partner. Managing director, Pushkar Taneja, said about 60-70 per cent of its market was interested in UC. It has a couple of large customers running IM on the desktop, using Exchange.

"Some will integrate voice and video and maybe one or two desktop components," Taneja said. "But some are happy to leave voice as voice and data as data. Some don't even have voicemail, and they're happy with that."

He said customers now understood UC was not one-size-fits-all but had to be customised to their objectives as well as to legacy technology. That was all to the reseller's advantage, he suggested.

"Now they're realising what they need to do to take UC seriously," Taneja said. "We have to change things to implement it - networking, desktop updates and bandwidth, and so on."

A company with 500 people running four apps is different from one running 10. Some customers are already using UC in a standalone environment but looking at integration, Taneja said. Nortel marketing manager, Mitch Radomir, said many companies wanted UC but had to work to 2-3 year budgets. "Initially, they have to pick one option or feature that has big business benefits to show their own managers," he said.

Top choices are conference and collaboration solutions that do desktop or device independence. Bringing conferencing and collaboration in-house and running them via a PC or multimedia client is a good starting point, Radomir said.

The next move for a reseller was to offer desktop transformation, with a softphone and select applications on the desktop itself, providing basic call integration, Radomir said. From there, they can try upselling to full desktop or client integration, adding such things as Web collaboration and Nortel's Multimedia Conferencing, that anybody can access, to multimedia or softphone clients running on the PC or PDA. "That then becomes like a multimedia server, so you can do small collaborations internally," Radomir said. "The big thing is what the new features are going to be: we're starting to talk about dual and tri-mode mobile devices."

Instead of transferring to a technical expert when on a call, for example, customers can bring the person in on the same call, using UC. Other options and documents can be there too, viewed and exchanged among everyone on the call, he said.

Wrapping services around exciting new UC features offers plenty of channel opportunities. But Radomir warned that competition could get fierce.

"The big guys, the Telstras of the world, are moving into that space. Managed voice services people are increasingly moving into managed unified communications, and having big integrators in there to do that, such as Alphawest," he said.

If Radomir is right, resellers may have to move fast or be edged out.