Will the REAL Definition of Unified Communications Please Stand Up

Will the REAL Definition of Unified Communications Please Stand Up

By Blair Pleasant December 9, 2008 Leave a Comment
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Will the REAL Definition of Unified Communications Please Stand Up by Blair Pleasant

It’s hard to believe that after at least two years, we’re still debating about what is the real definition of unified communications (UC). Of course, the UCStrategies team came up with the “definitive definition” – UC is communications integrated to optimize business processes. UC integrates the necessary and appropriate real-time and non-real-time communications with business processes and requirements based on presence capabilities, presenting a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types. Using rules and policies, UC supports the enterprise to manage various types of communications across multiple devices and applications, while integrating with back-office applications, systems and business processes, with the goal of improving business agility and results, leading to increased revenues, decreased costs and improved customer service. As this definition suggests, UC is about solutions, not products.

But what is still unclear, especially to those who make products and to those who want to calculate the market size, is this: ”What makes up a UC solution?” Or, ”What UC components must or should be included when trying to define or count or forecast the UC market?”

According to my colleague Marty Parker, a UC solution is comprised of the minimum number of elements required to produce a measurable business process improvement based on optimizing the communication components of that business process. Marty notes that the RIM Blackberry would be a great example: by adding three elements – the device, the Blackberry server (enterprise or network) and software to control the two – the business world got e-mail wherever they went. It leveraged existing elements – e-mail software and servers and wired/wireless networks – but the new “UC” solution required three elements. Many other examples exist, too numerous to mention. 

Now to the question of what is in the UC market? In my recently-published market report and forecast, called “Unified Communications Market 2007-2012,” I sorted the market into the “Gross” market and the “Net” market. The gross market, of course, can include anything that is use in a UC solution. In that case, most analysts and vendors agree that UC is made up of a broad list of communication tools or components, including:

  • Call control and multimodal communications: this may or may not be an IP-PBX;
  • Presence: desktop, telephony, device presence, as well as a rules engine to manage access to presence information;
  • Messaging: instant messaging, email, voice mail, unified messaging, video messaging;
  • Conferencing: audio, Web and video;
  • Collaboration tools: whiteboarding, document sharing, etc.;
  • Mobility and mobile access;
  • Business process integration (sometimes called Communication Enabled Business Processes, or CEBP);
  • Telephony integration: PBX/IP PBX gateways to connect to the UC voice communications UC elements;
  • Many forms of clients and endpoints: telephones, SIP phones, softphones, wireless phones and mobile devices, soft clients (including web and/or voice portals); and
  • Speech recognition servers.

Note that this list excludes elements that may be accessed or used in UC solutions but that are not core communications elements, such as application software, directories and databases, wireless and wireless LAN and WAN networking, etc.  

Most of the various components have been around for many years, but have been in silos. The UC unified clients (e.g. a Blackberry as above or a web/PC client) access one or more of these components to create the solutions in a seamless, integrated manner. Escalating, or shifting from one communication mode to another, becomes as simple as clicking the mouse, speaking a command, or touching a display.

All of the components listed above are enablers or elements of UC, but not UC in and of themselves. The driving question is: which elements must be implemented in order for something to be considered UC?

In “Unified Communications Market 2007-2012,” I noted that several things must be present in order to be considered a UC solution:

  • Presence capabilities, generally via a presence server
  • A UC client or unified user interface
  • Call control and/or integration with voice capabilities

Presence is the cornerstone of UC, and is the foundation of any UC solution. This includes both IM or desktop presence as well as telephony presence (on the phone, off the phone). The unified UC client enables users to access the various UC elements and communication tools from any device and location. Call control and integration with voice capabilities is another essential element, although the call control can be software based, peer-to-peer and doesn’t necessarily mean an IP-PBX.

At least one communication channel, whether audio, visual, graphical or textual (instant messaging, email, or SMS) needs to be part of any UC solution. Depending on the business situation, some people will be more likely to use email, while others prefer IM, and if mobile, then SMS will be the preferred mode. We are no longer in a voice-dominated communication environment, and text messaging has taken on increased importance. With the advent of IM and presence, UC users report dramatically reduced numbers of voice mail messages, as users will verify that someone is available for a live voice call before actually placing the call.

While many of the other UC components, such as voice messaging or conferencing/collaboration, are important, you can have a UC solution without any of these elements. UC offerings should be flexible enough to allow companies to select the components they need, without having to pay for those that they don’t. And, this should be possible on a per-user basis in order to customize the solution for each individual user.

Some people believe that the IP PBX is a fundamental part of a UC solution. As already demonstrated by many companies, a UC solution can exist without voice functionality. Also, we believe that call control in a UC world is changing, and there are various ways in which to have voice conversations without the need for an IP PBX. More and more we’re seeing peer-to-peer communications, as well as software-based offerings that provide voice capabilities, and the role of the IP PBX will be greatly reduced in the coming years as it becomes a feature server.

Business process integration is another key element of a UC solution; communication-enabling business processes and applications generally provides a strong ROI. However, UC can provide basic user productivity benefits without necessarily integrating to specific business processes. For example, the basic “click to call” or “click to connect” capability is the most common UC application, and may or may not be tied to a business process.

To sum up, UC is more than a compilation of all of the various components – it is a way of integrating an appropriate and selective set of the various communication modes together with presence and a unified client interface, in order to optimize business processes, resulting in increased value to the organization in terms of reduced costs, increased revenues, and enhanced customer interactions and relationships.


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