If the goal of unified communications is to create a single vehicle for worker communication and collaboration,
it's hard to ignore that existing applications already go a long way toward that goal. These applications reach tens of millions of users, and best of all, they're free. Microsoft/Skype and Google Apps (specifically Google Voice, Google Chat and Gmail) seem to promise most, if not all, of what commercial enterprise collaboration tools and UC apps deliver.
Free collaboration tools and applications raise the question of whether to invest in enterprise-grade UC products and services, or whether to extend free services or get commercial alternatives to them. So is free UC good enough? The answer depends on two issues: The broad issue is the how your company defines unified; and the specific issue is how each free option could be integrated with your own needs.
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What makes unifying communications complicated is that desktop and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones all permit easy switching among applications -- as easy as it would be to switch between email, IM, video or voice within a specific UC application. At the client level, the platform someone uses to communicate offers enough unity to make additional integration less necessary.
How long does it take to check email on one app, send an IM with a second and start a collaboration session with a third? The answer depends on the specific UC needs of the business, and that's where free and commercial UC offerings may differ the most.
Enterprise IT grapples with free UC tools' identity and trust limitations
All of the free-tool UC providers are looking to build a community of users around their own products, and this discourages any integration with other communications tools. This model creates two points of communication/collaboration confusion. First, all of the people a given user wants to work with aren't necessarily in the same free-tool community, although some will be in several or even all of them. Yet potential security problems with identity and trust are associated with each community, since restrictions on the name someone uses to register are minimal with these services.
Contrast this with commercial UC tools, which typically provide integration with popular free communications tools and services, and have a central directory that ensures connections are made with authorized co-workers or partners, not outsiders spoofing names or sending invitations to connect in hope of breaking in to conduct espionage or distribute malware.
PSTN integration: Important despite brave new voice-app world
Another area where free tools may fall short of users' needs is in integration with the public switched telephone network (PSTN). While voice communication is waning among the young, and online research and buying is affecting traditional call-center sales, millions of business voice calls are still made each day. Integrating those calls into a UC plan is critical for any business.
The limitations of free tools come in at this juncture. Google Voice provides call-in capability but the calls enter a Google Chat client or are forwarded to a standard phone. The ability to transfer calls is limited. Outgoing calls are economical with Google Voice, but the number assigned to a specific worker is assigned in a static way, limiting the value of the service where there's even a small call center involved or where it's not desirable to assign a specific number to a specific worker. Skype offers inbound and outbound calling with the PSTN, but again, the relationship with the worker is static. Both of these tools, in short, make an explicit voice-service-to-desktop-client association, where most companies have outbound pools and inbound lines with live or automated call directors to handle the call load.
Enterprise UC solutions build from traditional voice services
With commercial UC, PSTN integration is often the strongest feature. The right commercial product can be linked to an existing phone system, to standard analog or digital (T1) voice trunks, and to SIP trunks for voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). This means that with enterprise UC, the communications facilities build from traditional voice calling, which is how most businesses have evolved and are continuing to evolve in terms of internal and external communication.
Ironically, being rooted in the PSTN is both the advantage and the challenge for commercial UC providers. Enterprises and midsized businesses with roots in traditional telephony may love their commercial UC partners in the call center and hate them at the desktop. Many feel that the integration is inadequate between the free communities Apple, Google and Microsoft/Skype created and the commercial UC offerings. In addition, commercial offerings can't create comparably rich and useful services even inside a company, which is why Skype for the enterprise is the most-often-selected model for the "best future UC strategy" in CIMI Corp.'s enterprise surveys.
The Microsoft/Skype deal may be the source of hope for commercial UC in the future. It's not that Microsoft is likely to suddenly "commercialize" Skype by making it into a paid service, or that Microsoft will create a truly effective UC client model based on the flexibility of Skype. It's the ease of integration of Microsoft's Lync UC offering that would likely leverage Microsoft's Azure cloud that could make the difference. All of this will stimulate comparable moves from Apple and Google, as well as from Microsoft Lync competitors, meaning virtually the whole commercial UC field. Instead of replacing commercial UC, the free service alternatives may enrich it.
Continue reading the corresponding parts in this series:
- Compare free UC from Skype and Google Voice to business phone systems
- Skype vs. Google Voice feature-by-feature showdown
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and enterprise data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced networking strategy issues. Check out his blog for the latest in communications business and technology development.