Can you define unified communications? What puts the 'U' in 'UC'?

It's difficult to define unified communications, so what is it exactly? This tip explains what sets UC apart from other communications.

Vendors each have their own definition of unified communications, so how does the industry as a whole define the term? This tip explains what sets UC apart from other communications.

How do you define unified communications?

There are many definitions for unified communications (UC), and the quest for a definitive definition continues.  What is UC? In general, UC systems integrate communications tools and break down barriers between modes of communication to reduce cost, remove complexity and improve ease-of-use.

In its simplest form, unified communication is manifested as a single client that combines access to multiple modes of communication. This client can utilize the calendar, contact list and address book of the host platform. Unified communication systems provide basic collaboration and communications capabilities. Depending on the modules installed and integrations made by the enterprise, UC systems can include more advance communication capabilities, such as speech-to-text translators. Most UC clients have mobile counterparts with the same general feature set.

What components make up unified communications?

UC components include the following:

  • Instant messaging and presence. Rich presence technology goes beyond a simple "green dot" presence that lists messages such as "Do Not Disturb," "In Meeting," "Away" and "Offline." Rich presence is delivered by an algorithm that determines user status based on activity, and is sometimes delivered across multiple devices.
  • Audio conferencing and video conferencing. Ideally, voice and video conferencing capabilities can be used alone or in conjunction with a Web conference. They also should allow external participants to join. Audio-only participants have the ability to call in to a conference, such as when mobile users are on the road. Desktop video allows road warriors and teleworkers to participate face-to-face in meetings.
  • Web conferencing. Web conferencing capabilities include application sharing, desktop sharing and whiteboarding. Usually, a participant can be designated to "drive" the presentation remotely. Also, external participants can join.
  • Voice and telephony with a VoIP telephone and dial pad integrated into the UC client. The UC client softphone replaces a desktop telephone if UC has been integrated with the enterprise phone system. Telephony controls will allow the user to forward calls and enable one-number aggregation of multiple phone numbers behind an office number. For example, users can enter a mobile number, home phone number, phone number at some location being visited, etc. The user switches between these numbers manually or by program logic, such as the time of day or the date. The caller only needs to know the main number.
  • Messaging components like email, voicemail and fax. Voicemails may be combined into a single voicemail box and delivered to email as .WAV files. Incoming faxes are likewise delivered via email as PDF attachments.

Other capabilities may include an auto-attendant for the phone, text-speech translators, document portals (such as SharePoint) and integration to other applications such as business processes and social media sites.

In order to define unified communications, UC at a minimum needs IM, presence, voice and conferencing capabilities, integrated with the contact store, directory and calendar. Video is also a popular UC capability. UC helps to find people quickly, often via presence and IM. Progressive communications may follow, beginning with chat and advancing to voice, video or even a conference call. UC is flexible, and moving from one communication mode to the next is often accomplished with a click. UC capabilities vary depending on the modules and integrations chosen.  UC products also include connectors for integration with mail, voice, video and other systems.

How NOT to define unified communications

A collection of point solutions is an alternative to UC that can provide similar communication modalities. Some example point solutions in place of UC can include the following:

  • Enterprise email, enterprise voice and voicemail;
  • Business cell phones with a different voicemail;
  • Modems with fax software on PCs;
  • Audio conferencing through a conferencing vendor;
  • Video chat through programs such as Skype;
  • IM through a program such as Windows Live Messenger; and
  • Web collaboration, such as GoToMeeting.

While these point solutions above can be considered UC components, they do not define unified communications on their own.  Point solutions also have a number of disadvantages. Without a UC client, the user is left scrambling around the desktop to locate the right tool as various modes of communication are called for. Synchronization is another issue caused by multiple solutions. For example, each tool has a contact list and some way to download or synchronize contacts, such as downloading from a file or importing names from Facebook. If the user isn't up to keeping the contact lists in sync, standalone contact lists may be required. This approach is likely to be fraught with support and user satisfaction headaches -- with some users doing fine, and others struggling to get by. Syncing through Facebook will often make corporate IT unhappy.

In summary, while enterprises may include point solutions such as GoToMeeting and Skype, their full benefits will not be realized until they are unified into a toolset that makes communication more convenient and UC tools more transparent.

This was first published in October 2012

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