Unified communications: Here at last?

So far, IP communications that follow users across voice, IM, e-mail, and other media have benefited a narrow group. That may be about to change

While Todd Sharp is driving down the highway between Charlotte and Atlanta, a new sales order triggers a lookup for the customer phone number and salesperson (that would be Todd) assigned to it. The system then polls Siemens OpenScape UC (unified communications) software and checks Todd's presence status, discovering that he's working remotely and available only on his cell. OpenScape kicks off a VoIP call to Todd's cell phone and, using a text-to-speech engine, reads the sales order over the phone. It then prompts Todd to press 1 to autodial the customer. Minutes after the order arrived, Todd is thanking the customer from his car.

This example is typical of how UC -- an amalgam of voice communications, e-mail, instant messaging, and presence that may also include video, Web conferencing, and calendaring -- can accelerate and enhance business processes, customer service, and mobile communications. But adoption has been slow. Todd is one of the lucky few to enjoy the benefits, mainly because he works for Engage, a UC services vendor.

"Unified communications is a very overhyped market," says Mark Straton, senior vice president of global marketing at Siemens Enterprise Networks, "and one that will probably take another two to 10 years to roll out in the enterprise."

Zeus Kerravala, a Yankee Group analyst, agrees. "The market is basically where it was two years ago," says Kerravala. "Interest in the enterprise is high, but actual deployments are low."

Why? In part because most organizations have only partly completed the transition from old TDM phone systems to VoIP, the essential ingredient of UC. Plus, ROI numbers for UC remain elusive. Benefits come in fuzzy areas like higher productivity and faster decision-making, rather than revenue and cost savings. As a result, most organizations apply UC to specific parts of the business where a severe lag in reaching certain individuals can negatively affect the business.

"We're seeing early adopters in financial services where seconds lost trying to reach someone can mean lots of money," says David Marshak, senior product manager for unified communications and collaboration at IBM Lotus Software. "We're also seeing it used in the medical field for first responders, to help them quickly find a close, available doctor with this capability and equipment, and that level of clearance."

Enter the software gorillas

Another obstacle to mainstream acceptance: Unified communications solutions have tended to originate with IP PBX vendors. Though IP-based, those systems were still largely proprietary, with software tied tightly to hardware and their own client software for UC functions, including instant messaging, VoIP calls, and audio or Web conferencing. Instead of accessing UC functions from the Outlook, Office Communicator, or Sametime clients they already knew, users had to learn a new client.

Today, however, IP telephony and UC are moving toward a more IT-centric software architecture, laying the groundwork for broader acceptance. A prime example is the software-based OpenScape solution, built from the ground up on SIP and SOA, and interoperable with a variety of third-party VoIP and instant messaging systems. But the traditional software players, including Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle, are also getting into the act.

Microsoft's upcoming OCS (Office Communications Server), which replaces LCS (Live Communications Server), actually includes several SIP-based VoIP calling features typically found in such IP PBXs as Cisco's CallManager, along with video and Web conferencing, telephony management tools, and speech recognition. All of that plus Microsoft's trademark instant messaging has been rolled in a single package accessible from Microsoft's Office Communicator client or Outlook. In OCS shops, Office users will be able to click on a person's name in any Office document and instantly obtain presence information, including whether they are on the phone, and then launch an IM, a voice call, or an audio or Web conference. OCS interoperates with mainstream IP PBXs, but on its own, it can even serve as a small office's VoIP system.

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