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The tipping point: Top unified communications issues for 2012

It seems every year that unified communications (UC) faces problems and survives, but the technology has yet to achieve what its supporters would like to believe it could, which is a complete transformation of how businesses communicate. When something consistently falls short of expectations, you’ve got to ask whether the problem is at least in part the expectations. That may be, and the most interesting thing about UC in 2012 is that this may be the year. Not the “year of UC” in the conventional sense, but the year when UC transforms into something that can -- and will -- succeed. The top five unified communications issues in 2012 will determine what the transformation will lead to, and how far and fast it will go.

No. 5 on the 2012 issue parade for UC is the need for a “tabletized” conception for UC. In the years of its conceptual life, UC has been seen as driving or being driven by

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convergence, obsoleting or validating current voice technology, and embracing or abandoning collaboration. None of that means anything even in 2011, and it will mean less in 2012. What means something is the tablet and its UC role.

A tablet is probably the best possible accommodation to the needs of mobile/portable productivity enhancement. Wi-Fi tablets are cheap and potentially powerful devices to empower workers inside a facility, which is where they’d likely exercise UC. The problem is that the popular models aren’t linked to UC, and the tablets linked to UC aren’t popular. This kind of positioning vacuum can’t last; look for it to end in 2012 with some creative offerings.

The No. 4 unified communications issue for next year is the growth of mashups and APIs in both the business and consumer space. This is being driven in part by the smartphone/apps craze and partly by cloud computing. The mashup/app drive generates two issues for UC; first, users are being encouraged to view video, voice, email and chatting as widgets or apps, which means that the whole notion of unification in a single-application sense is being lost. The second point is that proper use of mashups and APIs could create a means of building “ad hoc” UC, a virtual UC product that would be literally skin-deep but highly flexible. Is this a new vision of UC or  competition for it?

It may be that we need to have some standard set of UC APIs, things that developers can mash up within the UC product set and also mash with other useful APIs. The problem is that not only are market-leading vendors reluctant to standardize, there’s not a complete consensus on what UC is in a functional sense. How then do we expose functionality through APIs?

Issue No. 3 is UC security and compliance, a topic that has been lurking in the background for years. Increased interest in incorporating document sharing and editing into UC generates a risk that a contaminated file will be spread through peer connections, which are harder to secure overall. There’s also a growing question whether all UC exchanges can be archived and audited for compliance, a problem that’s acute in industries that are heavily regulated.

The more that UC expands beyond simple voice, the more challenging a security and compliance problem it could create. The more that UC is constrained to voice, the less relevant a claim for it being “unified” will be, and the less connected it will be to the real future of business communications. We will be starting to strike this balance in 2012.

The No. 2 UC issue for 2012 is the growing need for better UC integration with applications. Businesses want to improve productivity by customizing workers’ application GUIs (graphical user interface). They also want to improve productivity through UC and collaboration. The collision between these two issues means that UC isn’t a simple plug-and-play no matter who you get it from; it has to be melded into a per-worker empowerment plan. That’s not something companies want to do themselves, so you’ve created a need for integrators or VARs.

The challenge this creates is that UC integrators and VARs are typically very conservative voice/phone types. The last thing they want to get into is customizing GUIs. The last thing that application-oriented integrators want to get into is UC, which they see as a complicated sell to a completely different constituency. That tension has to be resolved in 2012 or UC ends up disconnecting from the data center.

Issue No. 1 for 2012 is perhaps the most fundamental issue UC has ever faced:  Business transformation in public communications services are altering the service mix of the public network. Mobile is much more important, which means “black phones” are less so. Public policy is driving even residential users toward VoIP, and interpersonal video chatting has created an appetite for enterprise video that bypasses questions of whether it’s really needed or even valuable for collaboration -- it’s expected.

Business communications practices and expectations are set by public services, and public services also determine what workers can expect to have and need in order to communicate outside their companies with customers or partners. Clearly, public communication could even embrace the unification goals of UC. Skype’s and Google’s various offerings provide integrated communications, and how exactly does that differ from “unified” communications anyway? Businesses are already more likely to frame their view of the “ideal” UC service around something like Skype than on a commercial UC product or service.

UC has had the slows. How many of last year’s key issues for UC were really addressed? Most vendors and customers in the UC space would likely have agreed with all five, and they’d likely now agree that UC didn’t step up to any, even though they all developed. It may be that 2012 will be the year of put up … or shut up.

About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his blog, Uncommon Wisdom, for the latest in communications business and technology development.

This was first published in December 2011

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