VOICECON - Users applaud unified communications technology

Unified communications technologies that work with a variety of powerful vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Avaya were a big hit with users at VoiceCon Spring 2006 Wednesday.

Microsoft has announced over the past two days that it will develop Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) interoperability within its Live Communications Server 2005 and communications products from Cisco, Avaya, Alcatel, Mitel Networks, NEC, Nortel Networks and Siemens.

One customer who uses both Cisco and Microsoft technology said the cooperation, which might lead to products he can use by August, could help improve business efficiency. "It will be huge for us," said Chris Beck, enterprise voice architect at Career Education in Hoffman Estates, Ill. The company has 17,000 employees with 80 locations, and about half its workers are equipped with IP telephones.

Beck said that having a Cisco server to detect the presence of workers on IP phones and other communications equipment could help drastically reduce the turnaround time on Web inquiries by would-be students seeking information. If the candidates could be called back in 10 minutes instead of 15 minutes or more, it would increase the chance that they would be interested in his company's programs, Beck said. Knowing who was available to return calls would help reduce the call-back time, he added.

Being able to convert interested callers into actual applicants might not matter to students, but it could help Career Education, he said. If internal applications that his company uses can be leveraged for use by customers and potential customers, he noted, "that would be gargantuan for us."

The prospect of Cisco working with Avaya and other tough competitors prompted several IT managers to sing the praises of integration and open standards. One who would not give his name called it "Kumbaya time for IT." But an executive at a of large vendor played down that notion a bit, however, calling the news "Kumbaya lite," since competition is still very much alive.

Jamie Libow, telecommunications director at St. Paul Travelers Insurance in St. Paul, Minn., has already been using both Avaya and Cisco products in a combined IP telephony system for communications. The company, which has 30,000 employees, started with the combined Cisco-Avaya system in 2000 and will continue using it indefinitely. "Both have strengths, and both have weaknesses," Libow said in a keynote address. "No IP telephony system is perfect today, and that's why we have both Avaya and Cisco."

However, Libow joked that it is sometimes hard working with both companies as they compete, and he compared the experience to that of a child of divorced parents.

At a luncheon with analysts and reporters, Cisco CEO John Chambers said that SIP and other open standards are naturally going to push vendors closer together. But he also said that customers who buy an all-Cisco architecture will probably save more money than those who build hybrid systems. "The markets will come together for all forms of communication," he said.

The change in the market toward unified communications means that Cisco will be selling products not only to IT shops, but also to end users and consumers, Chambers said. Even as voice, data and video are converging, so, too, are security systems -- as shown by Cisco's announcement today that it plans to purchase SyPixx Networks.

Don Proctor, senior vice president of the voice technology group, which oversees the Cisco Unified Communications system that was announced this week, said that 47 products make up the entire system, with about 15 of them new, including the Cisco Unified Presence Server. Cisco annnounced a new pricing model to allow customers to buy parts or all of that system, with the per-user costs ranging from US$450 to US$1,500.

Proctor said that although SIP interoperability will bring staunch competitors such as Avaya and Cisco closer together, there will still be "healthy competition" between the various companies.

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