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Unified communications platform gets SMB twist

While unified communications (UC) has eluded the SMB market, Siemens this week released an all-in-one UC appliance specifically for the SMB.

Unified communications (UC) has in recent months dominated the enterprise space, but small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have been somewhat left to fend for themselves, piecing together ad hoc UC systems for collaboration.

This week, however, Siemens announced a single appliance that unifies communications for SMBs. The vendor claims that it will save smaller companies money while offering them the productivity and collaboration benefits of a robust enterprise-grade UC solution. The HiPath OpenOffice ME is a UC appliance designed for 20 to 150 end users.

The all-in-one appliance introduces presence awareness, which allows calls and contact attempts to be routed to the appropriate device or number. Along with that, it features drag-and-drop conference management, a plug-in that adds UC features to Microsoft Outlook, a call journal illustrating history, voice and fax message boxes, personal auto attendant, live call recording, and dialing from any application.

Richard Wood, Siemens' global vice president of portfolio marketing, said presence status allows end users to see co-workers' availability for a phone call or ad hoc conference. Integrating with Outlook means that presence information is taken from the user's calendar and used to change call routing preferences and voicemail greetings dynamically. The appliance also has a mobility feature that can send calls and other contacts to devices.

"SMBs have the same communication pain points as enterprises, but the SMB has fewer resources," Wood said, adding that scarce resources have limited the traction of UC in the SMB.

In a recent report, AMI-Partners noted that many SMBs have the desire to implement UC but lack the knowledge of where to start.

"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."

"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.

The report also noted that the market lacks an integrated UC platform designed specifically for smaller companies.

"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."

Frost and Sullivan analyst Krithi Rao agreed that the SMB market has been somewhat neglected by UC vendors because they often lack pockets deep enough to afford viable solutions. But she added that as SMBs' UC needs have changed, the vendor community has also begun to step up.

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"It's the customer base itself that has evolved and grown up, and the vendors have evolved and grown up too," she said.

Rao said many SMBs want to give the appearance that they are enterprise-sized, and lack of physical space and resources has made that difficult.

"Anything targeted toward them needs to be affordable and efficient," she said. "You have to make sure the installation, administration and management is also simple."

Siemens has come to the table with a platform that SMBs can deploy cheaply and easily, with very little overhead, she said, adding that the single-platform approach could entice more SMBs to jump into the UC arena.

"SMBs want all of the UC capabilities on a single platform," Rao said. "You can deploy the whole [Siemens] solution on one server, one platform."

Shayne Spackman, IT director for Santa Barbara Charter, a three-aircraft charter company with about 20 employees, said his goals for unified communications boil down to efficiency, productivity and customer service.

"For the customer, being able to reach the person they want in the quickest fashion is key," he said. "The bottom line is efficiency."

Before UC was added to the network, Spackman said, a call would come in and it could take a few tries for employees to track down the right person to receive that call. They would try instant messaging, calling the mobile device, sending an email and ringing the desk phone.

"It interrupts the process," he said, adding that presence information now dictates the best way to connect the call. "It unifies all of the different areas for the people we're contacted by. You don't have to use four different programs to contact someone. That ability to contact somebody quickly is going to be the best value."

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