Open Standards Give UC a Boost

Unified communications has been on the verge of breaking through as must-have technology for the better part of 10 years. As video conferencing, telepresence, unified messaging and computer-telephony integration have made their way into the enterprise, it seemed natural that at some point all these technologies would meld into one unified product set.

Problem was, proprietary standards between – and even among – the vendors of these technologies made integration extremely difficult, if not impossible. Luckily, however, that is starting to change.

Within the last few years, a number of vendors in the telepresence, communications and networking space have taken a new, open standards approach to designing unified communications components. Open standards enable different vendors’ technologies to integrate with each other to provide a cumulatively better user experience, which in turn can help spur further adoption of UC by making it less of a hassle to implement and integrate.

Open standards are helping these vendors snatch a piece of the UC pie, which is significant; a recent report from ABI Research, “Vertical Market Opportunities in Unified Communications,” predicted the UC solutions market will reach nearly $4.2 billion in 2014. Part of that market, ABI predicted, will be made up of end-user companies that are finally blending their existing UC components into one turnkey system, a practice that has been all too common with proprietary systems.

“Companies have been buying only those component technologies that they think will deliver immediate value,” said ABI Practice Director Stan Schatt. “It’s only later that they start tying it all together as true unified communications.”

As these companies make the migration to UC, VARs and solutions providers can step in and help tie together the disparate components, even those that aren’t open standards-based. Solution providers also can sell their customers on the benefits of using open standards, since some open standards-based technologies can simply sit on top of existing networks and alleviate the need to rip and replace hardware.

Today, open standards offerings abound, from Siemens Enterprise Communications with its OpenScape UC server to Avaya Inc. with its SIP-based Aura communications platform and Polycom Inc. with its Open Collaboration Network. These are just a few of the vendors that have embraced the open standards approach and thus far have made a success of it.

“We’re all trying to align around standards and take away the headaches,” said Mark Roberts, vice president of partner marketing at Polycom. “There is an unseen cost of business of trying to grow a proprietary environment — the customers are at the mercy of one vendor. We want to remove that.”

Even Cisco Systems Inc., king of the proprietary standards, has taken a second look at open standards and, while not fully embracing a new architecture, developed a Telepresence Interoperability Protocol that enables telepresence systems to communicate with other vendors’ UC systems. “Competition and industry expansion is best fostered through open standards and interoperability,” Cisco noted when it released the protocol.

One of the emerging keys to success for vendors in open standards is partnerships. Although the idea of open standards is to allow their systems to integrate seamlessly, the technology doesn’t offer much value if vendors aren’t working together. “There are still gaps where no standards exist. Even the largest vendors such as Cisco don’t make everything, so there’s a premium on partnerships,” noted the ABI report.

Indeed, partnerships can create a buzz around UC that one vendor acting alone cannot. Polycom is one vendor that has embraced the value of partnering with other vendors. In the past three months, the video conferencing and telepresence vendor has forged relationships with Siemens Enterprise Communications, Juniper Networks Inc., Microsoft Corp. and BroadSoft Inc., all in the name of aligning its products with complementary technologies.

Partnerships also can go along way toward creating greater opportunity for channel partners, especially because no one vendor can offer a complete, end-to-end UC system. It’s a lot easier to sell end-users on the benefits of unified communications when all pieces of the puzzle are present and interoperable.

However promising the UC market is, its final success depends on whether companies continue to support and build upon open standards. The positive implications are many – increased productivity, streamlined communications, improved collaboration among employees – but thus far the road to true UC has been rife with interoperability issues. Open standards can pave the way for innumerable opportunities for vendors and their channel partners if this next wave of UC technology becomes the norm.

Charlene O’Hanlon is a freelance writer specializing in the technology channel.

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