Unified communications is one of the most promising of all horizontal applications for productivity enhancement because it supports the key activities of customer/sales support, team building for projects and general business communications. It's also an application that has been battered by competitive positioning, vendor consolidation and a host of industry forces. How it reacts to these pressures will determine the form unified communications (UC) will take in the coming decade, and many UC issues will be highly visible in 2010.
In the case of UC, changes in 2010 are also likely.
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Here, in inverse order of importance, are the top five unified communications issues for the year.
Vendor consolidation and M&A holds the No. 5 spot. There is a strong base of unified communications support for traditional communications vendors, players that had been the primary voice system providers of the past. With Avaya's acquisition of Nortel's unified communications and voice assets, the risk that consolidation in the vendor space could affect both the evolution of unified communications products and the relationships between UC users and their VAR/retail partners has become clear. In 2008, only 17% of UC users surveyed by CIMI Corp. reported concerns about their vendor's future and future UC commitment. That number grew to 44% in late 2009.
Next up, at No. 4, is stringent unified communications project ROI requirements and CFO skepticism. Generally, companies respond to economic pressure by raising the target return on investment (ROI) for any projects, including technology projects like a UC installation. The higher ROI target makes it harder to define savings or other benefits that can launch a new UC commitment or a significant change to a current one. Even where UC is already in use, budget constraints created by CFO skepticism about the benefits of UC can curtail further investment. This was an issue cited by more than half of the companies that considered unified communications in 2009; and while 2010 looks better, almost the same percentage expect to work harder to get projects approved. One reason for CFO skepticism is the perception that UC is "old voice technology," something that enterprises say they need vendors to help shake.
Issue No. 3 for UC is ubiquitous broadband and 4G deployment. Quality broadband that's widely available encourages companies to increase their workers' access to key applications while on the road. The application focus of mobile workers creates an application focus on worker communication, and that may tend to preference software-based UC tools that are readily integrated with business applications. It also complicates mobile worker communication by increasing the chance that workers will use both smartphones and smaller computers/netbooks. This means that unified communications tools will have to be accessible in order to be optimally valuable. Finally, it may mean that voice communication will have to be packetized into VoIP form to be integrated with all of the information appliances and communications services a worker might use.
The No. 2 UC issue is the consolidation of UC with collaboration. For some years, there has been a tension between a pure unified communications model that focuses on connection/communications management across email, voice and IM, and a broader model that involves collaboration -- unified communications and collaboration (UCC) has been on the rise. As the need to improve worker productivity grows (partly in response to more stringent ROI targets), there is increased focus on collaboration and a greater chance that UC will be seen as an element in a collaborative strategy rather than the other way around. Hosted collaboration in virtual meeting form, telepresence, and even tools like Google Apps are creating a model where collaboration is the goal and communication is something supported as an element in achieving that goal. That makes collaborative vendors stronger and creates increased demand for rich collaboration support in more traditional UC offerings.
In the No. 1 spot for 2010 UC issues is hosting and cloud computing. One of the reasons hosted/cloud UC is so important is that all of the other issues are increasingly driving a hosted or cloud solution.
Cloud computing is on the rise in the enterprise. First, the software migration toward service-oriented architectures (SOA) naturally supports distributed software and the creation of mashup applications that can easily include management of communications and collaborative tools (UC/UCC). Virtualization techniques, extended out of one data center and across the network by cloud computing enhancements, are accelerating cloud computing even faster than SOA could do alone. This puts great pressure on UC vendors and UC adopters to migrate to an application model that can be hosted in the cloud.
SOA facilitates application integration by first creating an application model based on the assembly of functional components and then providing a means of "mashing up" these components with those of the same or other applications to create a unified personalized application. In many ways, SOA is an enabling technology for the basic principle of UC, but adoption of SOA by UC vendors has been tentative. In 2010, the pace will accelerate as businesses demand more easily integrated application tools as a part of their broader software programs, including cloud computing.
Cloud-based unified communications or UC-as-a-service is also a handy way to get senior management in general, and CFOs in particular, behind a UC project. Hosted UC can reduce out-of-pocket costs by eliminating the need to buy software and servers. It can provide a means of executing a limited-scope trial with little or no financial commitment on the part of the company. It promises some immunity from obsolescence -- a real risk as the UC space is pressured by many market forces in many directions. Hosted UC in some form is becoming critical, in large part because it's an element in the strategy of many of the software vendors (e.g., Microsoft) that are looking to dominate the UC market. Even traditional equipment-based UC vendors are beginning to embrace the cloud; Siemens Enterprise Communications has provided a proof-of-concept Amazon Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) implementation of its OpenScape unified communications platform.
Change is inevitable in technology, and normally it's a good thing because it can tune features more precisely to the most credible benefits, thus improving a project's chances of approval. In the case of UC, changes in 2010 are also likely.
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his SearchTelecom.com networking blog Uncommon Wisdom.