Defining Unified Communications
The term Unified Communications has been haphazardly thrown around by various vendors and analysts, and the term means different things to different people, depending on what part of the market you represent. Case in point, switch vendors have a different view of UC than do application or collaboration vendors. For the sake of level setting, here’s my definition of unified communications: Communication integrated to optimize business processes. In other words, Unified Communications integrates real-time and non-real time communications with business processes and requirements based on presence capabilities, presenting a consistent unified user interface and experience across multiple devices and media types. Unified Communications supports the enterprise to manage Real-Time and Non-Real-Time communications across multiple devices and applications, and across geographies, with personalized rules and policies, while integrating with back offices applications, systems, and business processes.
When many people hear the term “Unified Communications,” they think it’s referring to an extension of unified messaging. At one time, about eight years ago, analysts like myself and most UM vendors were indeed calling UM systems that were enhanced with real-time capabilities (such as find me/follow me or live reply) “unified communications.” Going back about five years ago, the definition of what we called UC evolved and changed as new capabilities and functions such as instant messaging and presence were added to the mix. More recently, about three or four years ago, a new generation of UC solutions integrated conferencing/collaboration capabilities with presence and IM, and in some cases, with UM. Fast forward to 2006, and the term unified communications is taking on an even broader meaning. When we refer to UC today, we are NOT, I repeat, are NOT talking about unified messaging. While UM is certainly one element of a UC solution, the terms cannot be used interchangeably, and distinctions need to be made to avoid further confusion. Today, UC solutions represent a new generation of communication tools, building upon previously siloed components and tasks. UC components include messaging (email, IM, voice, video), calling (audio, video), conferencing (audio, web, video), presence, device awareness, information sharing (web chat, file sharing, document sharing), business applications, and database access, tied together with a common user interface (which may be Microsoft Office Communicator, or a vendor-specific interface). None of these components is new, but the fact that they are being integrated together to provide enhanced value to businesses, is new. Even more important, these tools are being tied in with business processes and applications, making them exponentially more useful to businesses and workers. The key here is to optimize the components for the specific job, user, department and company requirements, where optimization is the process of achieving the maximum output per unit of input. Less (components) may well be more (output) in the new UC world. In the weeks and months to come, there will be an onslaught of announcements related to new UC products and applications. Users will be shaking their heads in confusion, wondering what it all means, and how to sort through the various offerings and approaches. Try to keep in mind that as of now, no single vendor provides all the answers or a comprehensive UC solution. Be wary of anyone who tells you that they have a complete UC offering – because in all likelihood, they don’t. The next few months will be confusing for everyone involved, and it will take time to sort through the dueling press releases, while figuring out what is real, and what is hype.