Unified Communications: Still Waiting

By Jeff Vance

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Microsoft recently outlined its strategy for unified communications. By teaming up with such partners as HP, Motorola, Nortel, and Siemens, the company intends to leverage its software to create a platform that “breaks down today’s silos of email, instant messaging, mobile, and VoIP.”

It sounds like a worthy goal, but look at just two items in the above list: mobile and VoIP. To date, that mixture has been like gas and water and, to make matters worse, enterprises like Microsoft and HP have a vastly different approach to communications problems than the carriers—necessary participants if unified communications is to achieve broad adoption.

“Virtually every network equipment provider offers a VoIP SIP-based telephony architecture, but it’s been slow to gain traction in the enterprise,” said Daniel Taylor, managing director for the Mobile Enterprise Alliance, an advocacy group that promotes enterprise mobility solutions. “There’s so much inertia around the circuit-switched world that it’s hard to get people to embrace something new.”

Adding to the problem is the fact that cellular operators are reluctant to jettison their investments in circuit-switched architectures. Their business models are based on driving as much traffic over to cellular networks as possible. Many carriers intend to amortize the cost of these investments over the next five-to-ten years.

Too Many Devices

Zig Serafin, general manager of Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group, argues that it’s actually in the interest of carriers to embrace unified communications.

He believes there are two forces at work that will bring carriers to the unified communications table. First, the carriers themselves have a vested interest: Mobile carriers are already working to bring enterprise features to mobile devices. The better and more flexible the device, the higher the customer retention rates.

Second, and more importantly, enterprise IT managers are clamoring for more tightly integrated communications platforms with simplified management systems.

“From an IT pro’s perspective, it’s very expensive to treat voice as a single communications mode,” Serafin said. “Even at Microsoft, it still costs upwards of $750 to give a new employee basic telephony capabilities, plus an additional $180 per user per year for support and management.”

He noted that the money spent on PBX, voicemail, email, video, and other communications services is a $43 billion market worldwide. Yet, with all of that spending, IT still has no easy solution for managing communications.

“IT faces an unwieldy tangle of disconnected systems,” Serafin said. “There’s a PBX for phone calls, messaging systems for voicemail, a system for email, another for instant messaging, and so on. All told, the typical company deploys six different communications devices plus five communications software applications per user.”

In other words, the ROI for communications is unwieldy and out of control. The promise of unified communications is simplified communications management and easier, feature-rich roll-outs. For overworked, under-funded IT departments, the benefits of that are hard to overstate.

Lighting up Active Directory

One of the first management benefits will be the extension of corporate directories, or as Serafin said, “the lighting up of Active Directory.”

Today, IT managers have to administer user permissions from application to application, rather than simply doing it in a unified way. With Active Directory as an underlying platform, a single user can be administered across enterprise applications from a single point of management. Better still, entire groups can be administered in this fashion.

The key to extending Active Directory and other management features is the many partnerships Microsoft has entered into this summer.

“The importance of these partnerships shouldn’t be minimized,” said Bern Elliot, an analyst at Gartner. “This is deep partnering, not just integration. There is significant product alignment, and the partnerships bolster a weak spot in Microsoft portfolio, which is telephony.”

Two Question Marks

However, there are doubts about whether the future of unified communications will conform to Microsoft’s vision. Elliot noted the ROI for unified communications is unproven. While the management benefits look good on paper, people will have to adopt new devices and learn new workflows, a process that could take years.

Similarly, Taylor expressed some concerns about the lack of mobile carrier partners. “The carriers own the wide-area network. Without them, there’s no unified communications."

On the other hand, Taylor said new cellular usage trends could bring carriers to the table. He noted that Skype, which is a niche-player at best in the U.S., has been widely embraced in Europe. Why? Roaming charges. Users would prefer relying solely on their mobile phones, but they don’t because of the high roaming charges.

With standalone Skype phones hitting the market soon, the logical thing for carriers to do is lower roaming charges. But there’s a hidden subtext here: Users prefer their mobile phones in many situations.

To check email, would you rather flip open your cell phone or find a hotspot and fire up a laptop? For now, steep cellular data and smart-phone prices have kept the cellular data market small, but that could change as prices erode. Similarly, as more business applications migrate to handhelds, corporations may be willing to pick up a bigger chunk of each employee’s cellular tab.

Is IT Ready?

Most enterprises aren’t—at least not yet. Gartner recommends planning for unified communications today. “Don’t let it just happen to you,” Elliot said. “Take the time to understand your options and prepare accordingly.”

Elliot recommends surveying the unified communications offerings in the market to determine what will fit well into your organization. Get all of the key people in charge of messaging, email, and mobile on the same page and prepare pilots.

“Then, in a 12-to-24 month timeframe, plan to scale up deployments where pilots have worked out and make infrastructure adjustments,” Elliot said.

Within two-to-three years, Elliot believes that proactive businesses will begin rolling out unified communications infrastructures. “It’s possible there will be real competitive advantages, and if you do nothing, you could lose out,” he warned.