Let's start with the basics -- what is unified communications? The term unified communications means different things to different people, depending on what part of the market they represent -- e.g., switch vendors have a view of unified communications (UC) different from that of application or conferencing vendors. UCStrategies.com has defined UC as: Communications integrated to optimize business processes.
UC integrates real-time and non real-time communications with business processes and requirements based on presence capabilities, presenting a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types. UC supports the enterprise to manage various types of communications across multiple devices and applications, and across geographies, with personalized rules and policies, while integrating with back-office applications, systems and business processes. UC enables people to connect, communicate and collaborate seamlessly to improve business agility and results. These results include better user and group productivity, dynamic collaboration and simplified business processes, with the goal of increasing revenues, decreasing costs and improving customer service.
Now let's talk about what UC is not. UC is not a single product but rather a solution made up of a variety of communication tools and components. Some people use the terms "unified messaging" and "unified communications" interchangeably, but -- as you'll see -- unified messaging is simply one element of a UC solution. Similarly, the term UC is sometimes expanded to encompass the next generation of IP communications. Again, call control or IP communications is one element of a UC solution, but it is not UC in and of itself. UC is a comprehensive solution that ties several components together with user experience. UC components include:
- Call control and multimodal communications
- Instant messaging
- Unified messaging
- Speech access and personal assistant
- Conferencing -- audio, Web and video
- Collaboration tools
- Business process integration (BPI)
- Software to enable business process integration
For the highest ROI results, these UC tools are tied into business processes and applications, making the integrated solution exponentially more useful to businesses and workers. One key part of UC is called presence. Presence enables you (or software applications) to determine whether someone is available to communicate— either by telephone, instant message, Web sharing or even mobile phone. This makes communications much more efficient and greatly reduces "telephone tag." A typical UC session might start with an instant message between two parties that escalates to a phone call or Web conference through a click of a button on the PC screen. That click connects the parties via audio, and another turns the call into video, if desired. If other people need to be added to the conversation, a look at the presence status of people on your buddy list lets you simply click-to-conference to bring them into the call.
In addition, the more advanced presence tools can find a person based on role, skill or knowledge and can also present differing "presence" indications to different audiences (available to team or client, but busy to others)—simple and efficient.
UC ELEMENTS AND COMPONENTS
Unified communications is not a single product—it is a solution made up of various components, including (but not limited to) the following:
Call control/IP PBXs
While several vendors consider the switch or IP PBX to be the main element of a UC solution, and some consider UC to be merely an extension of Internet telephony, we view the IP PBX as a UC enabler -- no more, no less. The PBX/IP PBX provides the plumbing needed for a UC solution. The IP PBX market is in a state of change, as vendors move toward software approaches and away from hardware-centric products. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web services are playing an important role in UC solutions, and most switch vendors have announced plans to provide call control capabilities via software rather than hardware.
Presence is the cornerstone of a UC solution. As the fundamental enabler for UC, presence will be "the dial tone of the future." Presence provides real-time notification of users' current availability and ability to communicate. Presence servers gather presence information from various sources and provide unified presence information to end users or applications. In a UC world, when we discuss presence, we are going beyond simple instant message presence (i.e., knowing if a buddy is online and available for an instant messaging session) to presence enabling all communications, including telephony. Most switch vendors today either offer their own presence server and capabilities or integrate with presence capabilities from IBM and/or Microsoft. The biggest challenge today is the lack of federation, or the ability of these presence systems to work together to allow users on one presence system to see the presence status of a partner or customer on another system.
Instant messaging (IM) is another critical component of a UC solution. In business environments, IM generally requires an enterprise-grade IM system, rather than a public IM service such as AOL or Yahoo. Enterprise IM systems offer security and privacy that public IM services cannot. As with presence servers, however, most enterprise IM systems do not interoperate with others.
Unified messaging (UM) is the integration of voice, fax and email messages and message notification. UM allows users to access any of these messages, anywhere, anytime, from any terminal. Building on UM's store-and-forward capabilities, most UM products add a variety of advanced call and message management functions, including desktop call screening of inbound calls, find me/follow me, live reply or call return, and cross-media messaging. New presence capabilities mean that the need for UM systems to act as answering machines is being reduced, and the value of UM is moving toward enhanced, real-time connectivity with individuals.
Speech access and personal assistant
Using speech commands, personal assistants (or virtual assistants) allow users to access their inbox, calendar, directory and so on. Personal assistants provide intelligent screening and filtering of messages and let users navigate their schedule, calendar, contacts, outbound dialing and so on, in addition to their UM system.
Conferencing and collaboration
Conferencing and collaboration includes audio, video and Web conferencing, as well as collaborative capabilities such as shared workspaces, whiteboarding, file sharing and document sharing. The fastest-growing technology in the collaborative portfolio is Web conferencing, which brings collaboration to the desktop via a Web browser and an Internet connection, allowing participants to view presentations and other documents while participating in a real-time conference. Voice communications can take place over the Internet or through a separate audio conferencing bridge. Another collaboration component is shared workspaces, which enable participants to view, share, edit and save documents and files.
In the UC world, more and more voice and video communications will be launched from -- and connected to -- mobile wireless devices. Integrating the mobile users' voice and real-time communications services with core enterprise communications lets them do their jobs regardless of location. Enabling UC features like click-to-conference and IM for mobile users allows them to participate in conferences and access some of the same capabilities they can access in the office, improving their productivity when mobile.
Business process integration
An important element of a UC solution is integration with business processes and workflow applications. One of the key goals of business process integration is to eliminate "human latency" -- a business process stalled by the need to wait for human input or communication. In many business processes today, work comes to a standstill until someone can provide information needed to proceed to the next step. UC can reduce this delay by contacting the next person in a sequence of steps, or by initiating an ad hoc meeting or conference call to settle an issue. By communication- or voice-enabling business processes and applications, communications can be initiated within the application, making it easier to notify and interact with others to resolve a problem.
The first applications to be communication-enabled are back-office applications such as CRM, ERP, sales force automation and supply-chain management. Order fulfillment and customer service readily lend themselves to simplification through presence and communications awareness.
An example of basic business process integration is a process that uses Microsoft Office applications. Someone who is reviewing a document or spreadsheet and needs additional information from the author can simply mouse-over the author's name, see his/her presence status, and click-to-call to initiate a real-time conversation. The same can be done within specialized applications. A manufacturing exception system, for example, can detect an issue and automatically notify the appropriate people (i.e., quality assurance specialist, engineer and supervisor) via any communications mode, be it mobile or desk phone, email or instant message. These people are brought into a conference call and can resolve the issue on the spot.
The future is bright
We are at the early stages of unified communication deployments. Both vendors and enterprise customers are struggling to understand what this new world holds in store. But one thing is certain: The future is bright, and those companies that begin the move to UC implementation will have a competitive edge over those that delay.
Click here to read Unified Communications: Cutting through the hype in its entirety.
About the author
Blair Pleasant provides consulting and market research analysis on voice/data convergence markets and technologies, aimed at helping end-user and vendor clients both strategically and tactically. Prior to COMMfusion, Ms. Pleasant was director of communications analysis for The PELORUS Group, a market research and consulting firm, and President of Lower Falls Consulting.
This was first published in July 2008