If you’re looking for a bit of trouble, it’s easy enough to find by bringing up unified communications. Anointed as one of the hot convergence technologies over the next several years, unified communications has stirred up a lot of talk about what it is and isn’t. It’s also been the cause of feverish debate between hosted provider and premises-based equipment vendor executives, who can work up a righteous rage when it comes to choosing the better delivery approach — from the cloud or on-site.
Thankfully, it’s an argument that VARs, agents and systems integrators can sit out. The truth is, the key to growing the still-emerging UC market lies in the kinds of flexible and customized integration that these players excel in; those that offer their customers the most options stand to win big. The hosted IP telephony/UC market alone is pegged to hit $15 billion in revenues by 2015, according to a Frost & Sullivan report. But to do that, these partners will have to come to grips with a confusing array of implementation possibilities that go far beyond the “hosted vs. premises-based” controversy.
First, let’s define our terms. While the list of communication/messaging elements as well as IT apps that comprise a UC solution can vary widely, there is general agreement on the basic components: voice/VoIP, mobility, video calling, unified messaging, presence and IM/chat. Basic conferencing and collaboration through audio, video and Web session also are typically included. A unified client portal allows customers to monitor and manage these services separately or in combination.
Beyond these, though, there’s some disagreement over which features belong on the basic UC menu and which are more advanced. Some, such as Bob Barnes, executive vice president sales, marketing and business development at hosted provider CallTower Inc., would add e-mail, calendaring and contact management to the first list, and then move to more advanced functionality such as voice-to-text, fixed-mobile convergence (extending full landline PBX functionality to mobile phones), voice mail integration and document storage and management with integrated presence.
And the possibilities for higher-end features don’t stop there. Moving upscale, fellow hosted provider Thinking Phone Networks offers integrated business intelligence and analytics to its core UC functionality. Similarly, another UC provider, Alteva LLC, differentiates by adding HD voice to its VoIP service, tied to collaboration apps such as Microsoft’s Office Communications Server, Live Meeting and Microsoft SharePoint. And some vendors, such as Polycom Inc., are talking about UC federation, or interworking multiple business partners’ UC systems.