Practically any technology company worth its salt these days has to have a unified communications (UC) story to sell. Bill Gates, chairman of software titan Microsoft, is so psyched by the potential of the technology that he talks of making the entire human race’s lives “richer, more productive and more fulfilling”.
Essentially, unified communications promises anytime, anywhere communications: a seamless, device-independent, transport-independent method of communicating through the use of IP-based technology. One user may initiate a mobile call, but the recipient may pick it up as an instant message.
Much of the recent fanfare for UC has arisen because Microsoft has just entered the market, promising to change “the way we communicate as fundamentally as email has done”. But Microsoft is simply joining an already crowded market: IBM, Cisco, Avaya, BT, Nortel, Siemens and several others all offer UC technologies.
There are already early enterprise adopters of some aspects of UC such as British Airways, which is extending the reach of its email systems to its mobile workforce, or soft drink distributor Coca-Cola Enterprises, which has embarked on a programme to integrate its enterprise applications and communications infrastructure.
But to date these look more like discrete projects aimed at delivering specific business improvements, as opposed to the wholesale adoption of an entirely integrated communications platform.
Meanwhile, there is a danger that UC will come to mean all things to all people while delivering little tangible business benefit. Some commentators, such as IDC analyst Nina Freeman, point to a large degree of scepticism among users as to the benefits of unified communications. Freeman questions the bottom-line benefits businesses gain from investing heavily in technology which might only offer minimal productivity gains.
So does Microsoft’s entry into the UC market signify that the technology is now ready for prime time? Or is it merely yet another case of vendors getting caught up in marketing hype, for an unproven – if potentially useful – technology?
The experts' response…
Mike Gotta, principal analyst at the Burton Group, says the productivity benefits of unified communications make it a no-brainer for businesses.
I can tell you quite clearly that the productivity hit on workers as they spend an inordinate amount of time triaging email, voice mail, and other communication channels is enormous. The idea that we should just accept the morass of communication chaos and anarchy and learn to deal with it is not a serious recommendation I would make to a business or IT strategist interested in improving the operational aspects of their organisation or looking at ways to transform communication channels.
Business leaders will need to be convinced of the value of unified communications before they invest, says Matthew Hester, senior analyst at Analysys.
Currently, I don’t believe the business case for unified communications has been spelt out by the providers. Moving to UC entails some large-scale changes to the enterprise infrastructure. There is a lot of work that needs to be done around device support and billing mechanisms. In the first instance, companies are deploying aspects of what will become a unified communications infrastructure, but it is a complicated procedure – and one where there is little clear evidence of the value it will bring.