Every day, workers are bombarded with a constant stream of instant messages, email, phone calls, faxes, scheduled and unscheduled conferences, and online input like blogs and video clips. Juggling all those communications can take up a large chunk of the working day. Gone are the days of message pads, departmental voice mail and “hold my calls!”
Just when the situation threatens to overwhelm productivity, a familiar concept steps into the breach: convergence. Unified communications is back, and being positioned by market heavyweights as a seamless strategy converging e-mail, instant messaging, voice, data, video and conferencing via a single interface.
Anyone who remembers “find-me/followme” and text-to-voice mail services knows unified communications is not new. But the earlier wave (2001-2002) petered out as enterprise IM, IP PBX functionality and conferencing/collaboration tools replaced fax/e-mail/voice mail integration. And challenges like a lack of interoperability between businesses using different platforms, systems integration, cost, poor user interfaces and the rise of advanced applications assisted its demise.
A NEW UNIFIED DAY
Four years after “find me/follow me” failed to take off, unified communications is back, spearheaded by big initiatives from Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. They say the market trajectory will be different this time, because the time is finally ripe for the concept.
Earlier in the year, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers targeted unified communications as a $10 billion opportunity. Analysts tend to agree, with the Radicati Group pegging the worldwide market as totaling $10.5 billion by 2008. In-Stat predicts the domestic market to reach $628.6 million in revenue by 2010. Meanwhile, InfoTech says revenue growth from SMB-oriented converged applications will average 47 percent per year for the next five years, driven primarily by unified communications. And respondents to an InfoTech survey rated unified communications as No. 1 in projected spending and expected business value.
The new idea for unified communications goes beyond the consolidated mailbox. Presence offers a way for people to establish priorities for the way they want to communicate, VoIP forms the basis for voice communications, and there is the ability to push the apps over multiple access networks, such as enterprise Wi-Fi. Users simply click to connect, breaking down the disparate interfaces of e-mail, IM, mobility, voice and conferencing through software and open standards.
“Unified communications is evolving to address the problems of the past,” says Hardy Myers, president and CEO at AVST, maker of the CallXpress unified communications platform, which it sells through VARs and regional interconnects. “Even in the last year, we’ve seen it go from being collaboration-centric to integrating with the business process operations of the enterprise. It’s a big idea and a big opportunity.”
Increasingly, mobility and virtualization are the primary drivers. “All businesses are key markets for unified communications, especially markets involving contact centers and mobile workers,” says Walter Kenrich, vice president of the small-medium business division at Vertical Communications Inc., which offers the TeleVantage 7.5 unified communications package via its channel partners. “A growing number of contact centers employ virtual agents who work off-site, so having instant access to customer communication by any channel — e-mail, voice or text — is paramount,” Kenrich notes. “Mobile employees also require the same level of access to stay connected to the enterprise while working between locations to remain accessible to clients, suppliers and colleagues. By providing agents and mobile workers easier access to customer or colleague communications using a single, easy-to-use interface, unified communications will substantially improve employee productivity and maintain consistent high-quality customer contact.”
Beyond where people work, the way people work has changed too. “There are so many demands on our time, and it’s a completely different world from even a couple of years ago,” says Michael Bronsdon, group product manager for Microsoft’s Office Communication Server 2007. “Organizational productivity starts with the individual, who is no longer going to work to do work. Now they may be working outside normal business hours, sitting in a café or at a remote office, multitasking across applications. The communications have to adapt to enable that way of working, in a contextual way.”
BROUGHT TO YOU BY MICROSOFT AND CISCO
While the technology and societal stars may be aligned for unified communications, it helps when big initiatives from big players kick-start a market. Microsoft and Cisco both have announced major strategies around unified communications this year.
Microsoft in June laid out its vision for new functionalities slated to hit the market in 2007. A “Communicator” client on the desktop (which also can be browser-based or mobile), will be the single interface for all communications, and act as a messaging repository. It gives users an IM-like buddy list with presence information, through which they click to initiate a call, message or conference.
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In Vertical’s TeleVantage ViewPoint client, the Call Monitor folder is the visual counterpart to a telephone, making and receiving calls, and providing conferencing and voice mail.
Microsoft also aims to allow integration with virtually any enterprise software, including CRM, ERP and other communications apps. Effectively, Microsoft aims to become the software brain behind the enterprise.
“What you can do with software is getting ever more powerful for the user,” says Bronsdon. “And there is a host of potential applications from other vendors to enrich the ecosystem. Across time zones, through networks and firewalls, empowering people to do their work well, with a way to manage all that intuitively, is incredibly compelling.”
The Microsoft Office Communication Server 2007 will operate behind the scenes as a presence server and clearinghouse for VoIP call management, multimedia conferencing, IM conversations and other communications, across existing software applications, services and devices, including connectivity to public IM networks such as MSN, AOL and Yahoo! and outside software packages.
Its job will be helped along by the new unified communications functionalities that are a standard, pre-integrated part of Microsoft Office 2007, which is slated for release next year. These include Microsoft Exchange Server (which will now aggregate voice mail, fax and e-mail), Outlook and Speech Server for VoIP. The Live Meeting conferencing software will now include support for VoIP and will integrate seamlessly with Office.
The portfolio will be marketed by Microsoft VARs and through a marketing alliance with Nortel Networks. Nortel and Microsoft will perform joint sales, provide systems integration and professional services, and create a joint channel program using both companies’ systems integrator, reseller and service provider relationships.
Meanwhile, Cisco also announced its unified communications system earlier this year to address today’s anywhere, anytime work culture. Unlike Microsoft’s softwarecentric approach, Cisco’s offering is inherently tied to the underlying IP telephony network. A mix of network servers and applications are built to go hand-in-hand with the IT data network as a service delivery platform, which can be configured to extend the capabilities to remote or traveling employees.
The system is based on Cisco’s existing IP telephony portfolio, but adds native support for SIP along with the Unified Personal Communicator and Unified Presence Server. Personal Communicator brings together the standalone applications on the desktop, telephone and network using dynamic presence information. Employees also can search existing directories to locate contacts and click-to-call using voice and video. A presence server collects information about a user’s availability status from the network, IP PBX and devices, so other applications, devices and third-party applications can make use of it.
“We are positioning voice as an application on the secure, converged IP network,” says Rick Moran, Cisco’s vice president of product and technology marketing. “The result of that is the ability to extend the functionality anywhere workers need to be, at any point in time. So the services are the same throughout the person’s work range — people simply log on and have the same features, facilities and phone number regardless of their situation.”
Channel-friendly Cisco offers the portfolio via VARs and integrators, with several levels of certification to address various business sizes from small to multisite large enterprises. It also packages life cycle services for VARs to deploy and manage the unified communications system, bundling server replacement, application software updates and hardware and software problem resolution into one service that covers the entire system. Moran notes there is still a need for a fair bit of education when it comes to some of the applications, like desktop video conferencing, but explaining the concept to businesses lets VARs add value.
Microsoft and Cisco are defining unified communications from a marketing standpoint as anything having to do with communications — IM, PBX, IVR, voice mail, e-mail, video and more. Rather than narrowing the market by monopoly, their entry is actually widening it, players say.
For one,VARs can create more compelling pitches with a cohesive solution. “Once, a VAR had to carry a whole suite of point products from multiple vendors [to attack the communications infrastructure], and it was very time-consuming and expensive,” says Brad Herrington, product marketing manager for unified communications at Interactive Intelligence, maker of the Vonexus IP telephony platform for SMBs, which is tightly integrated with Microsoft solutions. “Now, we see dial tone on the desktop and Cisco delivering a unified messaging box, and it’s a much better proposition for unified communications.”
The end-to-end approach may be a better proposition for unified communications, but getting rid of hard-to-integrate point solutions doesn’t mean businesses have to take single-vendor approach. That’s because strides in interoperability are making room for other players. IBM, Cisco and Microsoft are taking care to allow cross-integration, for the benefit of businesses with existing hybrid solutions. And new unified communications packages are built on open standards and come with APIs. That means a business can talk to external partners and clients via the internal unified system, and can add applications as needed, hooking them into the unified communications infrastructure. Now, VARs can create communications bundles that address specific needs.
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Sphere Communications offers one interface to control all communications from the desktop.
“IP PBX resellers can bundle applications in,” explains Myers. “Or a VAR can create a combination of several different applications. For instance, we can bridge voice and data to effectively speechify a Salesforce.com or other CRM solution — and that, for a sales guy, can be a groundswell change, allowing that person to get information into the lead tracking system no matter where they are, just by picking up the phone.”
Vertical markets are another opportunity for this kind of custom bundling. One Envox Worldwide channel partner developed the AccuNurse solution, a VoIP-based, speech-activated, hands-free documentation and communication system the nursing staff of senior care facilities can use to review resident care plans and document care as it happens, while walking down the corridor or making a bed. A headset allows them to record notes, page for assistance, call up records and more. “Over time, there will be more and more of these applications that take advantage of a unified communications infrastructure,” says John Joseph, vice president of corporate marketing at Envox.
“The challenge of taking all these disparate components within communications and making them play nicely together is something we now see the industry attacking,” says Todd Landry, vice president at Sphere Communications, which offers distributed software applications for IP PBX functionality through a multitier VAR program, including a unified communications interface. “When IP PBXs first came about, they were vertically integrated. Now, when we talk about unified communications, it’s the concept of using Web Services to provide synchronized integration with Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, homegrown systems, and so on, for every facet of the business process. There’s an opportunity for VARs and for all of us to add value into accounts, and for smaller players to still find a niche as Microsoft and Cisco get into this market with end-to-end solutions and raise the profile.”
Is it Real or is it Cisco?
Cisco Systems Inc. launched the Cisco TelePresence Meeting solution in October, a fullimmersion experience for HD videoconferencing. Custom rooms with very high-quality, life-size display screens, special furniture, directional sound technology, pre-determined camera angles and lighting, and background colors chosen to flatter the users, creates the illusion of an in-person meeting.
“TelePresence is all about the experience, so we designed everything but the chairs,” says Al Safarikas, senior director of the global wireline segment at Cisco. “This is life-size, with 1080p video resolution, and it is absolutely amazing. The technology melts away and you feel you’re in the room with the people on the other side of the table, down to the smallest facial expression.”
TelePresence Meeting is part of Cisco’s overall unified communications platform and strategy, which leverages IP MPLS and NGN networks to unite communications across the enterprise and a range of applications, from voice to IM to video. “A user simply comes into the room and clicks a button to invite people to a meeting, from the buddy list or Outlook,” explains Safarikas. “Once you have their availability, you select ‘TelePresence’ as the medium, network resources are automatically allocated, it appears on the Cisco IP phones, and you’re up and running. To the user, it’s seamless.”
The rooms are available in two flavors. The Cisco TelePresence 1000 is designed for small group meetings and one-on-one conversations, for use in executive offices, hotel lobbies, bank branches and medical offices. The Cisco TelePresence 3000 meanwhile is designed for meetings of up to 12 people and features three 60-inch televisions for a board-room experience.
“This can be as ubiquitous as VoIP,” says Safarikas. “It can give new meaning to the term ‘sports bar.’ Or a big hotel chain can deploy this to enable remote breakfast meetings, wrapping in catering.” Cisco uses it internally as well; telecommuter Margaret has become a virtual assistant, working inside a television placed in a cube at the vendor’s headquarters.
Unified communications and TelePresence Meeting are understandably complex bits of technology, so the vendor has put in place certification programs to train partners on what it takes to deploy the rooms. Cisco is also partnering with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Business to market the solution. The carrier customers can provide the network necessary to fuel the bandwidth needs for the system, and can in the future provide it as a managed service, wrapped with emerging applications like Virtual Assistant, which is an informational avatar that can be deployed into the system to act almost as a concierge service. Service providers also can become a certified Advanced Technology Partner, gaining training on how to deploy the room itself and acting as channel and integration partners. They’ll also play a role in enabling the wide adoption of Cisco rooms by helping to solve interoperability issues between carrier networks.
“This is an IP application, not an Internet application, and it can’t be peered in the same way as VoIP, as an example,” says Safarikas. “This runs over private, high-quality networks, and interconnecting traffic across service providers between multiple sites is where we want to get to. So we’re working with them early on.” Service providers will be able to become “TelePresence-certified” via a new program Cisco is developing.
As might be expected, the rooms aren’t cheap. The Cisco TelePresence 1000 has a list price of $79,000, while the Cisco TelePresence 3000 carries a price tag of $299,000. To ease financial hurdles, Cisco Systems Capital is offering leases, including consultation, equipment and installation, with terms from 36 to 60 months.
Cisco Systems Inc. www.cisco.com
Envox Worldwide www.envox.com
Interactive Intelligence www.inin.com
Microsoft Corp. www.microsoft.com
Sphere Communications www.spherecom.com
Vertical Communications Inc. www.vertical.com