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SIP Unified Communications Is All the Buzz
[March 16, 2006]

SIP Unified Communications Is All the Buzz

 

Setting the Stage For More Unified Communications

The results of a new survey published in the journal of the oldest computer association in the world, the Communications of the Association of Computer Machinery, highlights the sobering fact that messaging communications are overtaking telephone voice contacts as the preferred alternative to increasingly difficult face-to-face meetings between inter-enterprise business associates and decision makers. Whereas the phone ranked a perceived “richness” score of 25.91 (out of a maximum of 40), email achieved a score of 25.83. “This surprising result may signal that frequent email use and technologies such as Instant messaging, automatic messaging, and voice mail, may blur the perceived differences in the richness of email and the phone.”
 
The study report concludes, “The main lesson learned is that distributed (business) relationships involving complex tasks can be maintained by increasing the frequency and flow of (all forms of) communication.”   

 
Because of time conflicts and a desire to practice what I have been preaching, i.e., to be more “virtual,” I did not go to VoiceCon 2005 in Orlando last week. Instead, I listened to a couple of the keynotes as podcasts, read the announcements and press coverages disgorged by the media over the internet, pre-interviewed some of the vendors about their announcements before the release dates, and asked some of my knowledgeable colleagues who were going to the show to let me know of any notable surprises.
One of my associates who did attend VoiceCon is Blair Pleasant, who volunteered to write up the show wearing her “unified communications”-tinted glasses. So, here’s Blair!

The VoiceCon Buzz

I am happy to report that Unified Communications has finally reached the mainstream. At the VoiceCon show in Orlando last week, you couldn’t help but hear and see the term Unified Communications everywhere you went. As someone who’s been writing about Unified Communications (UC) for several years, it was a breath of fresh air to see both the big data and voice vendors all jumping on the SIP-based, “unified” communication applications bandwagon. From John Chambers’ keynote, to announcements by Microsoft and several partners, and enterprise telephony market leaders Avaya and Nortel, everyone was talking about UC.
 
But we’re not talking about the old “UC,” which many in the industry, myself included, previously described as the superset of unified messaging (UM). No, UC is more – much more.

Defining IP Unified Communications

The definition I’ve been using for the past couple years is as follows:
 
Unified Communications includes the real-time element of voice communications and messaging, providing telephony connection and routing services. UC includes real-time call control, collaboration, conferencing, media handling, voice-enabled scheduling/calendar as well as real-time connection and call completion across a range of devices, such as mobile devices. UC also adds enhanced capabilities such as click-to-call, speech access to the groupware environment and for voice commands, as well as presence capabilities and real-time messaging capabilities such as instant messaging and SMS.
 
The ultimate goal of UC is to enable users, from the desktop and from any business application, to choose to email, voice call, video call or IM through one click, without having to leave the application. UC enables users to collaborate and conference though a choice of communications medium, and to hold “virtual” meetings regardless of the location of the participants.
This “old” definition has evolved over the years, as UC has expanded to encompass more and more capabilities and integration points, especially with the growth of real-time Instant Messaging and the concept of presence/availability management. But the real kicker that is making UC functionality practical has been the shift from proprietary, premise-based, TDM telephony servers to “open,” standards-based IP infrastructure, which has also facilitated the integration of voice contacts with text-based messaging.
 
Cisco Preaches UC and Acknowledges Communication Device Independence
At VoiceCon, we heard the IP industry’s “rock star,” Cisco’s John Chambers state: “The number one issue will be about collaboration.” He went on to say that “Collaboration is about unified communications and how to communicate with people in ways that they are most comfortable with.” This is what those of us writing about and following UC have been saying for years, and it’s so refreshing to hear the likes of Cisco and others validating the need for and the value of UC. Chambers emphasized that when looking at unified communications, it cannot be done in a vacuum, and companies need to look at how UC ties in with their business processes. You go, John! Art and I (and a few others in the industry) have been talking about this for years, noting the need for integrated and embedded collaboration and communication functions that are not in separate silos, but are part of the fabric of business process applications.
 
In Orlando, Cisco launched its new Unified Communications system, which highlighted their adoption of standards-based SIP as the basis for future interoperability and flexibility of endpoint device choices.   Demonstrating the Unified Communications System suite of voice, data and video products and applications, Chambers (ably assisted by Vickie McGovern and Cisco’s “Chief Demo Officer” and straight man Jim Grubb) introduced Cisco’s new Unified Personal Communicator, a unified client that brings together management of a myriad of modes of communications at the desktop, including voice, IM, email, and even video, while leveraging the power of presence to initiate real-time contacts.
 
Highlighting the benefits of “Right Time Communications” (a term coined by Elizabeth Herrell of Forrester), but described as “transmodal communications” by Art, Cisco demonstrated how real-time interactions between people can start in one media or mode (i.e.; IM, or phone call) and with a click of a button can switch or escalate to a conference call, a video call/conference, or other communication mode – all based on the desired or preferred mode and device type of each user, as well as their presence and availability status. 
 
The Unified Communications System ties together several existing Cisco products (including the newly branded Cisco Unified CallManager, Cisco Unity, and Cisco Unified MeetingPlace), while adding the new Unified Presence Server and the Unified Personal Communicator. And yes, messaging (and unified messaging) is a part of this story, although SIP-based presence is the real star of the show. While the Unified Communications System is pretty slick, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s still missing some critical pieces of what I consider a complete solution, most notably, speech recognition for command and control of the unified client. (Particularly important for mobile devices.) I have no doubt that Cisco will remedy this in the not-too-distant future, since everyone else has added speech interface options to traditional telephony application TUIs. Additionally, Cisco Unified Communications System is not really a single system that customers can easily purchase, but rather an open and extensible platform for real-time communications. It is essentially a group of products that need to be implemented and integrated, and the number of Cisco partners qualified for this will need to quickly expand.
 
The underlying theme of Cisco’s message is business process transformation and integration with communication with people. Chambers noted that a key trend is the movement from transactions to interactions, and that more efficient interactions will drive employee productivity and performance. Again, those of us who have focused on the role that communication applications play are glad to see companies like Cisco, with its roots in the data networking world, moving up the operations stack to where we believe the true value lies.
 
Microsoft – It’s Only a Matter of Time
Cisco wasn’t the only one evangelizing about Unified Communications. We also heard Microsoft’s Gurdeep Singh Pall, Corporate Vice-President of Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group, discuss Microsoft’s UC vision. Microsoft’s view of UC focuses on a unified identify across devices and networks.  We wholeheartedly concur with Pall’s comment that UC isn’t four boxes you’re trying to tie together with duct tape, but rather is “People Centric Communications,” centering on the person or identity you’re trying to interact with. The “hub” for UC is Microsoft’s Live Communication Server (LCS) and Office Communicator.
 
At VoiceCon, several vendors, including Avaya and Cisco, announced integration of call control capabilities with LCS and Office Communicator, joining the ranks of those who have previously announced support and introduced products, including Nortel, Siemens, Alcatel/Genesys, NEC, and Mitel. This integration allows Office Communicator/LCS users to view the telephony presence of colleagues and partners from the Communicator client, while enabling click-to-call and VoIP capabilities and integration with IP-based switches.
 
We believe that Microsoft, which already owns the desktop, will try to expand its domain to owning the communications client, whether at the desktop or on a mobile device. Microsoft already offers Microsoft Office Communicator Web Access, delivering “an IM and presence experience for people away from their desks,” is working with RIM for Blackberry integration, has announced Office Communicator Mobile (OCM), providing IM, presence, VoIP, and remote call control integration for Windows Mobile devices, and will begin shipping OCM next month. One thing that was not made clear at VoiceCon was how Microsoft will integrate Groove into its UC strategy. Perhaps at the VoiceCon Fall show?
 
For those of you who don’t think Microsoft will be a competitive force to reckon with in the telephony and voice arena, well, you’d better watch your backs. Microsoft is coming – and it’s only a question of when. Microsoft will (for lack of a better term) change the existing personalized, real-time communications paradigm, and the traditional voice communications companies will have to re-evaluate their strategies.
 
What Was Missing
It was certainly refreshing to see many vendors who previously focused on networking and the lower levels of the infrastructure stack, finally seeing the light and acknowledging what We’ve e been saying for years – it’s all about the communication applications for contacting people, not just accessing information.
 
However, what we didn’t hear enough of at VoiceCon, was the need for “verticalizing” communication functions and devices, and for truly integrating and embedding UC into different business process applications that workers use everyday (with the exception of the Microsoft Office suite). A small handful of companies are beginning to deliver applications based on UC capabilities, rather than simply announcing that they provide presence capabilities, or integrate with LCS and OC.
 
For example, Nortel announced the deployment of its Expert Anywhere Contact Solution to allow banking customers to interact with service representatives through video kiosks at remote ATM sites, allowing members to complete transactions that previously required a branch visit.  Essentially, Nortel’s Expert Anywhere leverages Nortel’s UC capabilities, including its MCS 5100 presence and collaboration server, while integrating with Nortel’s Application Center and contact center products. This is the type of application I we’d like to see more of.
 
Will UC Become the New CRM?
While all this talk about UC is extremely gratifying and promising, we must be careful not to dilute what UC is all about. Remember back a few years ago when CRM was all the rage and everyone was touting their CRM wares for customer contact management? Even headset manufacturers were promoting themselves as CRM vendors – give me a break! We need to be careful that UC doesn’t become just another buzzword, and that vendors follow through on their UC visions and promises, ensuring a truly rich and flexible communications environment that will enhance people productivity at both the individual (“micro-productivity”) and group level (“macro-productivity”), and streamline all kinds of business processes.
Blair Pleasant
 
I just finished an exclusive article that “takes it from the top” and identifies the five main management reasons for an enterprise to move their call center operations to a multi-channel IP telecommunications infrastructure. Once you have aligned such business priorities properly, you can move on to the new implementation choices you now have in the “how to” phase for moving forward intelligently and cost efficiently.
  

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