The goal is simple: remove the barriers between devices and let workers share knowledge seamlessly. The advantages are better communication and less business travel, which enable enterprises to reduce their 'carbon footprint' and enhance their corporate image as environmentally friendly businesses. But between that ideal and the reality is a whole lot of technology and a few vendors that may or may not see eye-to-eye.
Gartner summed up this dilemma in a report on collaboration and communication. Matthew W. Cain, Gartner's vice president for research, said the technologies are coming together in a multitude of ways and creating confusion and opportunity in this fast-evolving market.
In his keynote address at the Microsoft unified communications (UC) launch held in San Francisco last October, Bill Gates compared UC to early GUI adaptation, where at first it was the sole province of early adopters but eventually became standard. He said the idea was to log in at the software level, and spoke of software becoming more ambitious, possibly in the area of 'software-bots.'
Cain said contributions to the rapid ascent of UC services come from the pervasive free access to the internet and, increasingly, from traditional in-house IT groups.
Is this a case of IT spawning yet another headache for the business units‾ Cain said not necessarily. 'While creating business value, UC will raise significant issues for every organization including justifying investments, coping with a changing array of vendors, understanding the role of voice in UC, creating a UC strategic plan, and creating a solid and manageable infrastructure for unified services.'
Another obstacle to mainstream acceptance is that UC solutions have tended to originate with IP PBX vendors. Though IP-based, those systems were still largely proprietary, with software tied tightly to hardware and their own client software for UC functions including instant messaging, VoIP calls, and audio or web conferencing. Instead of accessing UC functions from the Outlook, Office Communicator or Sametime clients that users already knew, they had to learn a new one.
Today, however, IP telephony and UC are moving toward a more IT-centric software architecture, laying the groundwork for broader acceptance. Traditional software players like Microsoft, IBM and Oracle are also getting into the act.
Microsoft's upcoming Office Communications Server includes several SIP-based VoIP calling features typically found in such IP PBXs as Cisco's CallManager, along with video and web conferencing, telephony management tools, and speech recognition. All of that, plus Microsoft's trademark IM has been rolled into a single package accessible from Office Communicator or Outlook. In OCS shops, Office users will theoretically be able to click on a person's name in any document, instantly obtain presence information, and then launch an IM, a voice call, or an audio or web conference.
PBX struggles to remain relevant
Nowadays, most of us rely on phone, email and sometimes IM for everyday communication. According to Microsoft, voice is the sticky point. Gates compared PBXs to mainframes in terms of centralization. 'This is just like the computer industry before the PC came along,' said Gates. He noted that expansions forced by traditional PBXs incurred costs and delays that he felt hampered his firm's global collaboration efforts.
'The average worker wastes 37 minutes a week playing phone tag or in voice mail jail,' said Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division.
Gartner's Cain agrees. 'PBX vendors will struggle to remain relevant as organizations look increasingly to suppliers like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco to deliver an integrated set of UC services, including voice,' he wrote. 'These dynamics have already created some strange bedfellows, with Microsoft allying with Nortel for voice expertise and IBM with Cisco for common client development activities.'
Yet, these alliance-lines seem freshly drawn. A few months ago, Cisco's and Microsoft's CEOs pledged to make their companies' technologies work together even as they compete in areas like voice call control. But some critics have called the promise a mere show of peace between two companies struggling over the lucrative UC business.
Sin said collaboration in the workplace brought about by UC needs to be inclusive - having one device talk to one application is not collaborative (where Microsoft is) while network-based solutions are open to all end-points (where Cisco already is).
'Microsoft's products are first-generation UC, but IP architecture is a prerequisite for UC,' added Sin.
Sam Yip, senior analyst with Sydney-based telecom research firm Telsyte, recommends not restricting UC to one telephony provider and to assess applications as they can be turned into telephony endpoints.
'As hardware becomes a commodity, we are going to see more hardware vendors give up on appliances and work with software vendors,' Yip said. He cited Nortel's partnership with Microsoft as an example.
David Wong, Nortel's managing director of Hong Kong, Macau and South China, is keen on his firm's innovative communications alliance (ICA) approach. 'ICA is based on a shared belief that the foundation of UC should be based on integrating a single client, directory and presence engine with enterprise-grade telephony,' said Wong. 'This software-centric approach simplifies management and reduces costs.'
Wong claims quantifiable savings associated with deploying ICA solutions. 'Standardizing on a single directory and presence engine delivers direct benefits to customers who otherwise would need to install and manage a parallel infrastructure, which is costly,' he said.
'Nortel and Microsoft are betting on Microsoft's Active Directory and OCS unlike other vendors that require a parallel architecture and infrastructure,' Wong added. He said the tie-up offers an open ecosystem and that the partners are recruiting a complete channel - resellers, developers and SIs - to maximize customer choice and solutions reach.
According to Cain, voice services are an integral part of the UC movement and that the transition to IP telephony for internal premise-based voice traffic is already well under way. He wrote that a parallel voice network is emerging via peer-to-peer services.
But Cain is not predicting a smooth ride. 'Organizations will struggle with cost, security and quality-of-service issues associated with peer-to-peer VoIP, but employees will increasingly use the service, driven by contextual availability and ease of escalation to voice,' he wrote. 'Voice will be just one more communication channel - picked from a palette of communication options - to be used primarily when emotive or complex data transfer is required. Driven by booming cellular phone use, growing sophistication of peer-to-peer VoIP and the ascent of premise-based voice services, traditional PBXs will be an anachronism within a decade.'
'The value [of UC] to organizations will be realized in several ways,' Cain said. 'First, the simplified and more effective use of the increasingly broad range of collaboration options.
Second, the improved ability of individuals and groups to accelerate reactions to market events. Third, the efficiency gains via the contextual embedding of communication services into applications at points where, for example, process disconnections occur and human intervention is necessary.'
'What organizations will struggle with is quantifying the benefits and calculating ROI. Companies may need to eschew traditional ROI mechanisms and look for alternative, less quantifiable means to justify UC investments, such as process cycle acceleration, faster problem remediation, increased information awareness and inclusion of more internal and external resources in planning processes.'
In his keynote, Gates cited a Forrester report that showed a 500% ROI over two years using Microsoft's UC tools. Gates said that the figure was so high because much of the infrastructure is already in place.
But Cain said one must not forget the wild card in the UC deck. 'The move to UC threatens the established status quo between traditional voice and data vendors, and presents a significant opportunity for public portal vendors to gain fee-based traction in the corporate market,' he said.