Unified communications (UC) has been available for several years in various shapes and forms, but adoption within corporations has been slow. Mobile UC is right around the corner and may act as a catalyst for greater UC adoption.
Unified communications comes in many different flavors from an increasingly large number of vendors. Components of it, such as unified messaging (voicemail/email integration), have been available for more than 10 years and yet adoption was slow. About five years ago, UC was broadened to include conferencing services (I actually wrote a white paper on this in 2003) and yet adoption, again, was slow. Over the last year or so, the definition of UC has been broadened to include instant messaging, presence and location, but adoption continued to be lackluster. Microsoft has now expanded UC even further to include Office applications and -- guess what -- adoption is still sluggish!
The latest wave to hit UC is mobility. There were many mobile UC demonstrations at the last VoiceCon and Interop tradeshows, and I'm expecting to see more in the upcoming VoiceCon in the fall. So the historical pattern has been: Add a feature, no impact on the market; add another feature, little impact; add another, not much impact; and so on. So do I really believe mobility could have an impact? Yes, I do -- and here's why.
I'm not totally sure I really need desktop-based unified communications. It may be nice to have but wouldn't be essential. One of the big benefits of UC is that it creates the ability to move information from one medium to another. For example, in just a few mouse clicks, I could listen to a voicemail, reply to the caller through an email, and then send that same person an IM. Three modes of communications all integrated together. Conceptually, it sounds great, but I'm really not sure it provides all that much value or saves much time. My communications and collaboration tools have been siloed for so long that I've become proficient at using them that way and so has almost ever tech-savvy worker out there today. The bottom line is that any technically proficient user -- there are more and more every day -- can manually switch between applications and unify his own collaboration tools. The desktop-based UC will grow, but it's going to require integration into business process -- but that's another column.
When I'm mobile, though, it's quite a different work environment. Switching between applications on a smartphone isn't nearly as simple as it is on a desktop. Moving information from one application to another is also much more difficult, so the integration of applications is much more valuable. Also, the multimodality of UC is huge when a user is mobile as well. When I'm in the office, I have a choice of contacting someone by phone, email or IM (so I often do all three at the same time!). When I'm mobile, the environment I'm in often dictates the mode of communication that I use. If I'm driving, I really shouldn't be typing on a keyboard (although everyone does), so speech is the preferred mode of communications. However, if you're in a crowded area or an area where you should be quiet (classroom, theater, etc.), you really shouldn't be yelling into a phone, so text-based communications is much more important. Thus, the ability to communicate with everyone you need to reach, in any mode, is critical when mobile.
Integrated presence is much more important when mobile. At my desk, I really don't need to do a mouse hover over a user's name in an Excel spreadsheet to see whether he's available. It's nice, but I can just look at my IM window. When a user is mobile, time is often limited, so trying to reach other users who aren't available can often be frustrating. Understanding the person's presence before you call becomes very important. Integrated presence will help us more efficiently use those 10-minute time slots between meetings or while waiting for a plane.
The last piece of the mobile UC puzzle is the handset itself. The business class smartphones today are head and shoulders better than the ones of just a couple of years ago. Personally, I think the Nokia E61i phone and the BlackBerry 8800 are two of the best business-class smartphones on the market today. In my opinion, the Treo has gone from leader to dark horse over the last few years. I've been a Treo user for years and moved from 600 to 650 to 700 and, quite frankly, each one has had many stability problems -- they crash a lot and just aren't in the same class as the Nokia and BlackBerry devices.
For those of you going through a UC deployment now, or at least thinking about it, I recommend you take a serious look at deploying UC to your mobile workforce as a test bed. Our research shows that over 40% of workers today are mobile, and that number is on the rise, so you shouldn't have trouble finding a group of people to use as a test bed. You'll give the mobile workers more functionality in more locations more often. Mobile device management isn't quite where it needs to be yet (especially multi-vendor), which might cause you some headaches, so start with a smaller group of users with the same device.
Lastly, determine which devices you want to support concurrently with your UC decision, as this will be a key component of your rollout. Microsoft UC is likely to work only on Windows Mobile initially (shocker). The Avaya and Cisco clients both work great on the Nokia device, etc. The device and UC decisions should be coordinated, otherwise you could limit yourself down the road.
About the author:
Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting. His areas of expertise involve working with customers to solve their business problems through the deployment of infrastructure technology solutions, including switching, routing, network management, voice solutions and VPNs.
Before joining Yankee Group, Kerravala was a senior engineer and technical project manager for Greenwich Technology Partners, a leading network infrastructure and engineering consulting firm. Prior to that, he was a vice president of IT for Ferris, Baker Watts, a mid-Atlantic-based brokerage firm, acting as both a lead engineer and project manager deploying corporate-wide technical solutions to support the firm's business units. Kerravala's first task at FBW was to roll out a new frame relay infrastructure with connections to branch offices, service providers, vendors and the stock exchange. He was also an engineer and technical project manager for Alex. Brown & Sons, responsible for the technology related to the equity trading desks.
Kerravala obtained a B.S. degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Victoria (Canada). He is also certified by Citrix and NetScout.