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Column: Unified communications does what? VoIP users tell it like it is

Unified communications users offer proof of concept for VoIP collaboration application.

Unified communications (UC) is so fragmented that it's currently difficult to pinpoint its market size, leaders and level of adoption. It's a combination of concrete collaboration products -- including email, voicemail, presence, video and audio -- and Web conferencing, but all by itself it's an intangible thing. It's textbook vaporware. It's the overlay that ties disparate collaboration pieces together.

Scouring for market figures to support trend analysis wasn't very fruitful. UC, I was told, isn't tracked. Presence is the fundamental enabler for UC, but the actual presence market size was described as "small." The individual products combined create a market size of about $30 billion. Sizable, but not directly linked to UC.

Forward-looking studies, such as a recent purchasing study done in-house by, predict growth for unified messaging, a subset of UC, but that's still down the road.

Yet this "technology" concept already sports an acronym, and it's consistently making headline news as vendors jockey for position in the emerging UC space.

How is this possible? Is UC something network managers care about or something they are being told they need to care about? Most companies employ at least one piece of the UC puzzle, but what's in it for them if they make a full-scale deployment?

Of course, Microsoft's June announcement about expanding Live Communications Server and Exchange into a full-blown, end-to-end UC platform helped propel the concept from "unified what?" to a term that can be bandied about in (some) casual conversations. In June, Microsoft lit a fire under Cisco and has squeezed the less-talked-about vendors out of the woodwork and into the limelight so that they, too, will be viewed as being at the forefront of the UC trend.

In June, Microsoft lit a fire under Cisco and squeezed the less-talked-about vendors out of the woodwork and into the limelight.

Ever since Microsoft's announcement, the vendor strategy updates have been flowing, whether or not they have anything new to say.

The latest news came from Siemens and Intel, two major companies that struck a deal to enhance Siemens' UC platform, OpenScape. This isn't new to the market, but it's now getting a second look because announcements such as this, small as they may be, pull companies back to the forefront.

Microsoft, Citrix, Avaya, Siemens, Mitel -- there's a long list of players, and they have a lot to say where differentiating their platforms is concerned. What is more interesting, though, is what users have to say about their personal experience with the technology.

Engage Inc., a service provider based in Atlanta, was in search of a UC platform and fell for Siemens' OpenScape when it witnessed UC in action.

Engage, which also provides OpenScape-based UC services to enterprises, began investigating several vendors, including Cisco and Shortel, two years ago. In some cases, it took a couple of months to answer the company's technical due-diligence questions. It was a frustrating experience, according to Engage director Todd Sharp.

When Sharp visited Siemens and experienced UC in real time, however, he was sold. All of the company's due-diligence technical questions were answered in real time from a satellite office from which key Siemens engineers were easily tracked down and able to provide documentation in a split second.

"Seeing [UC] live really made all the difference in the world," Sharp said. "We flew to one vendor to see the lab and kicked the tires. It was a great experience, but it was very different when we were sitting out in the field and Siemens was using real-time communications to shorten the sales cycle. That spoke volumes."

The Engage/Siemens deal was clinched in a matter of two to three weeks.

In fact, in tracking down another user -- Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Clothing's CIO John Seville -- presence was already in motion. A call to his cell phone led to a series of steps that screened the call and eventually rang through to his cell phone, reaching Seville in his Phoenix hotel.

"We are a small company, but we do a fair amount of traveling and one of our pain points was that nobody knew who was in, out, or on vacation," Seville said. The company's deployment is only a few weeks old but, according to Seville, Rocky Mountain is already realizing an increase in productivity. "It's just starting to pay off. Even a desk receptionist knows if somebody is in the building."

The moral of the story is that live experience offers a great education when contemplating purchasing decisions. No amount of marketing collateral and tension in the media can replace a fly-on-the-wall view of technology in action.

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