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Unified communications slowly reaching SMBs

SMBs are piecing together unified communications, but a truly integrated UC platform for the SMB is needed to make a real impact

Unified communications (UC) still has not taken hold in the small and medium-sized business (SMB) space, but a recent study by AMI-Partners has found that SMBs face numerous challenges that can be mitigated with a UC deployment.

According to AMI-Partners, the increasingly global economy has placed greater pressure on SMBs to become more flexible in order to compete, which means increased employee productivity, shorter response times and quick information-driven decision making. And while the SMB market has yet to fully embrace UC , some front-runners have recognized its necessity and have tied together UC tools to create a more efficient environment.

In the recent report "Driving Unified Communications and Collaboration Adoption in the SMB Market," AMI looked at SMB end-user market dynamics, rivers and inhibitors around UC technologies. The report also examined various vendor platforms, marketing and channel partner considerations that affect SMBs' adoption of UC.

SMBs still on a learning curve

"While SMBs are yet to fully comprehend the notion of unified communications (UC), AMI-Partners' tracking of this space reveals U.S. SMBs have started to adopt various facets of UC in a best-of-breed, piecemeal manner," the report said.

In many cases, SMBs are entering the UC space with hosted, low-cost and easily accessible tools, such as Skype and other VoIP services, then rounding out these tools with instant messaging (IM) and hosted Web conferencing services.

"Whether using Skype on their smartphones, installing in-house IP PBXs or using Web conferencing services, SMBs are clearly signaling their desire to utilize all available communications and collaboration solutions," said AMI-Partners Vice President Sanjeev Aggarwal. "However, SMBs are not familiar with the notion of unified communications, nor are they aware of the various platforms being cobbled together through acquisitions in the IT space."

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The report found that SMBs are evenly divided between favoring a best-of-breed solution and a single integrated strategic solutions provider, indicating that there is room for both types and interoperability among solutions is a necessary capability. AMI also found that channel partners need to evolve into business consultants to effectively sell UC solutions.

"What SMBs need and are willing to pay for today are easy-to-use point solutions that can help them enhance their business communications and collaboration skills at little cost and without requiring heavy IT support," Aggarwal said.

AMI said low cost and free tools like Skype are making a large impact in SMBs because of their convenience and mobility enhancements. AMI estimated more than 350,000 SMBs in the U.S. are using Skype for their business communications. But piecing together solutions may offer only small gains, Aggarwal said.

The biggest hurdle to the success of UC has been the lack of an integration platform backed by a market-leading vendor to tackle the challenge of linking disparate channels of communications. Of the vendors leading the charge, Cisco, Microsoft and possibly Google are strong contenders for an integrated UC platform in the SMB market, but all have a lot of work ahead of them, the report indicated.

"What 's missing, really, is the easy-to-use integrated platforms," Aggarwal said. "There really hasn't been a vendor that can bring it all together in an integrated platform specifically for the SMB. With the right focus, an integrated solution can really make a difference here. The piecemeal approach only gets them so far in terms of what the key goals are."

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