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Mobile unified communications definitions: Key standards

Understanding fundamental unified communications definitions for mobile UC technology and standards is the foundation for implementing mobile UC.

Editor's note: In part three of our series on assessing mobile collaboration for the enterprise, we look at fundamental UC technology and standards. Nemertes Research analyst Philip Clarke discusses the standards that define mobility and the emerging standards that will impact mobile collaboration.

Unified communications (UC) continues to better enable every endpoint that employees use throughout the workday, but none more so than mobile devices. Mobile devices within the enterprise have catapulted from being companion devices to being a PC replacement or a combination of the two. Accordingly, products ranging from consumer-oriented apps to enterprise-grade appliances are representing vendors' evolving offerings.

The UC proposition most appealing to enterprises is the promise of increased collaboration among their employees. IT professionals are bombarded by workers using a wide array of applications for their desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone devices. With all of the voice, video, document sharing, messaging and presence-focused technologies, it's no wonder that companies and vendors are fighting an uphill battle to maintain communications, let alone unified communications, across these largely disparate formats and endpoints. Accordingly, a wide variety of standards and vendor-specific implementations of standards have arisen to meet the challenges that IT professionals face today.

Standards for unified communications: Definitions you should know

Unified communications and mobility are defined by a multitude of standards, which can be helpful to enterprises that have multivendor and multi-endpoint needs. The majority of these standards are simply the baseline or building blocks that vendors use, however, with extensive additions to differentiate from their peers. Even so, some of the most fundamental standards are as follows:

Session Initiation Protocol (SIP): Defined by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), SIP defines the signaling and controlling mechanism for many implementations of voice and video calling, voice and video conferencing, instant messaging (IM), presence applications, and file transfers.

H.323: Defined by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), H.323 was the first ratified standard for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and still provides the basis for most current implementations.

H.264: Also an ITU standard and sometimes referred to as MPEG-4 and AVC, this video compression standard is used in everything from Blu-ray disks to YouTube to popular video conferencing technology, and in Web-conferencing heavyweights Adobe Flash Player and Microsoft Silverlight. The H.264 video-compression standard is the preferred one today.

UCIF: Unified Communications Interoperability Forum, though not a specific standard, is a body with members from HP, Microsoft, Polycom, Logitech/LifeSize and Juniper. (Cisco is notably absent.) This organization's charter is to speed up the integration of otherwise disparate implementations of IM, presence, telephony/IP telephony, video conferencing, call control and speech recognition.

Emerging standards for unified communications

The promise of UC, especially when combined with mobility, has opened the eyes of many vendors and government bodies to the fact that a fragmented communications infrastructure goes against the fundamental idea and even the name unified communications. Quite a few standards are in the works, with the most groundbreaking ones being Web-based, platform-independent and open source. This means that app creators will soon have the framework to create UC suites that are exceptionally cheap (or free) and have enterprise-level security and mission-critical functionality. Here are some new unified communications definitions you should have on your radar:

WebRTC: Driven by Google and being developed in two standards working groups, the IETF and the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, this standard enables browsers to initiate or conduct voice calls and other voice applications simply, using an open standard. WebRTC currently works in stable Chrome, Firefox and others. The absence of Internet Explorer from this list isn't indicative of Microsoft not being receptive or supportive of this standard, but rather of Google's and Mozilla's exceptionally rapid adoption and integration of WebRTC.

VP8: An alternative to H.264, VP8 is free, and like WebRTC, was created to provide browser-integrated video and video calling and conferencing with very little system overhead. This makes VP8 an ideal technology for mobile devices where battery life is of particular concern.

802.11u/802.21: The most promising of a family of wireless LAN (WLAN)/cellularhandoff standards (802.11u and 802.21, these Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, working groups are looking to deliver on the promise of unified mobile access). This means working to create seamless call handoffs between Wi-Fi and cellular networks that will allow users to walk in and out of office buildings while the call shifts to another network without disconnecting. The standards also create provisions for ad hoc Wi-Fi voice conferencing, quality of service, or QoS, and much stronger security than today's 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi standards.

Read part four of our series on mobile collaboration to learn how to find the UC platform that's right for your mobile UC deployment.

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