There hasn’t been much unity in unified communications (UC) over the years. UC products have more resembled a collection of standalone tools loosely coupled together with inconsistent integration. However, vendors are responding to customers who are demanding improved unified communications integration
"In the portfolio approach, you have a series of capabilities, but you're not assured they're all going to work together," said Bern Elliot, vice president and distinguished research analyst at Gartner, who co-authored the 2011 Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications. "Now what we're seeing from the leading vendors is a set of functions that are all intended to work together and do work together ... so you now have a set of functions that are not just sold together, but really will interoperate in what would be called a seamless way."
Vendors had taken liberties with the terms "integrated" and "unified" up until this year, Elliot said. Some vendors collected their IM, presence and conferencing products, all developed separately, and simply rebranded and bundled them together while making few meaningful changes to the products. Other vendors required enterprises to deploy gateway products to achieve UC integration, he said.
Once we went to Office 2010, Lync 2010 made that [UC] user experience consistent [across applications].
Global Network Architect, A.T. Kearney
"They were often starting with parts of the portfolio in place," Elliot said. "It's a convergence market. It's not a new market, which is to say it's a market being created because separate industries ... are now competing [to offer] the same services."
Kevin Rice, global network architect at A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm headquartered in Chicago, chose to deploy Microsoft Corp.'s Lync Server 2010 over Cisco Systems' Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) in part due to how tightly UC applications and other Microsoft products, such as SharePoint and the Office Suite, were integrated within Lync.
"When it comes to integration, it just works," Rice said. "Once we went to Office 2010, Lync 2010 made that [UC] user experience consistent [across applications]."
Vendors tighten UC integration with mobile, other apps
Cisco and Microsoft, both positioned in the "leaders" corner of the Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications, made significant UC integration progress through acquisition and integration, Elliot said. Other leaders—Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya and Siemens Enterprise Communications—achieved similar progress in UC integration but lack the roster of customers that Cisco and Microsoft can boast of, according to the report.
Gartner also named IBM and NEC "challengers" and Mitel Neworks as a visionary in the 2011 Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications. "Niche players" included Aastra Technologies, Digium, Huawei Technologies, Interactive Intelligence, ShoreTel, Toshiba and TeleWare.
Cisco "advanced [to] a more integrated approach" in its UC 8.5 release, particularly with the video conferencing technology it acquired from Tandberg in 2009 and IM/presence applications it acquired from Jabber in 2008, Elliot said. Earlier this year, Cisco standardized the interface and capabilities for its Jabber client across PCs, Macs, its Cius tablet and smartphones.
"Clients were actually a very difficult problem for the [vendors] to solve," Elliot said. "And what we see now ... is [demand for] a client that works not just on the desktop but a similarly integrated client that operates on Android and works on Apple's iOS operating system."
A.T. Kearney employees are incredibly mobile—bouncing from client sites to hotels to public hotspots most of the week—which has driven demand for UC integration across iPhones, iPads and BlackBerry devices, Rice said. He supported the BlackBerry for Office Communications Server (OCS), Lync's predecessor, and is currently testing Lync's client for BlackBerry devices.
"Mobile devices are huge for us right now," Rice said. "We want to see some ubiquitous access for Lync across a multitude of platforms—mobile devices, slate devices and even personal PCs being able to use the same client to get authentication into [their UC environment]."
Meanwhile, Microsoft delivered a "full suite of UC functionality" with the release of Lync Server 2010, particularly with the improvements made to its soft PBX functionality and ecosystem of third-party application developers, said Gartner's Elliot.
Microsoft has also improved UC integration across its other products over the past year, according to B.J. Haberkorn, senior group product manager for Lync at Microsoft. It integrated SharePoint 2010's "skill search" feature—which allows users to search for a person using keywords that appear in a SharePoint profile, such as "engineer" or "accounting"—into OCS early last year and carried the integration over to Lync. As a result, a user can enter those search terms directly from the Lync client and immediately see presence and communicate, Haberkorn said.
"We've had an integrated suite approach [since] we first set off on this journey," he said. "That's not really a change for us. What's probably changing is that customers are adopting more and more now that Lync is out."
Microsoft has stated its intentions to make Lync Online—its UC as a Service (UCaaS) offering in Office 365—as fully integrated and feature-rich as Lync on-premises. Its $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype this year makes Microsoft well-positioned to strengthen its UC integration efforts with the cloud, Gartner's Elliot said.
Rice hopes to see Microsoft integrate Skype’s and Lync's clients into a single interface or at least "see Lync act like Skype" to provide the consistent UC integration experience he's come to expect across other Microsoft products, he said.
"In short, we would like to see Lync consumerized," Rice said. "We would expect to see that ease of use and 'consumer' touch and feel Lync's technology and capabilities."
Unified communications integration improved, but not perfected
Despite these advances in unified communications integration, UC pros should remain wary of a single-vendor UC strategy, according to the Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications.
"Don't drink too deeply from this Kool-Aid. There are still some problems here," Elliot said. "Some vendors are really strong in voice and others are really strong in Web conferencing and desktop controls, but we're not quite there where they're all really good at everything."
E nterprise UC pros should continue to pursue a multivendor UC strategy, he said. Although there may be some sacrifices in terms of cross-vendor interoperability, a multivendor UC strategy enables enterprises to get more mileage out of existing investments and choose vendors that met their individual needs, Elliot said.
"The vendors are pushing to be the sole providers, but we don't recommend going with that," he said. "Enterprises that wish to pursue the single-vendor [strategy] can start evaluating which of the single-vendor suites matches their needs ... but [they should] be cautious. Don't make that commitment to one vendor until they've demonstrated their capabilities with multiple [customer] referrals."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, Senior News Writer.