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October 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 10
Feature Story

Realizing True Unified Communication It’s a Journey

By: Paula Bernier (News - Alert)

The ‘U’ in unified communications says it all. UC nirvana is a world in which people use the mediums and devices they want to reach the people and information they need – and without launching a new application for every different communication.

While today’s UC tools go a long way toward getting us to this new reality, the road to widespread and completely seamless UC is a long one.

“Only a few years ago nobody knew what UC was,” says Kevin Gavin (News - Alert), vice president of marketing at ShoreTel, which sells an IP PBX with built-in call center and UC capabilities. “Increasingly there’s a greater sense that UC matters.”

Early adopters are singing the praises of UC, he says, but there’s still confusion as to what unified communications offers and why people should care. Of course, that’s the learning curve for virtually any new technology, he adds, drawing a parallel between what’s happening in UC today and the build-up to cellular service acceptance. Gavin worked in the mobile industry early on “when people thought only rich and creepy people used [cellular phones],” he says. “But now everyone uses them.”

For any technology to gain widespread use, he continues, “the learning curve has to be instant.” However, he adds, oftentimes the solutions embraced by early adopters are unappealing to the mass market because they tend to be difficult to use. So ShoreTel (News - Alert) emphasized ease of use in the design of its solution, he says, which today is deployed at 11,000 businesses and enjoyed by more than 1 million end users. According to Gavin, 80 percent of ShoreTel customers actually use the UC functionality. “Everybody gets it,” he says.

Today, many communications start with IM. In response to an IM the called party can hit the call button in his or her IM window so the communication shifts to a voice call. During that call the participants may also opt to IM in the background.

This escalation can go all the way to a videoconference, notes says Jim Kruger (News - Alert), vice president of marketing for voice communications solutions at Polycom, noting the conferencing is a subset of UC.

Of course, it would be nice for users if they were able to tap into their existing investments in room-based videoconferencing systems, including newer telepresence solutions. But Matthew Krueger, vice president of marketing and business development for Network Equipment Technologies, or NET (News - Alert), say a fundamental flaw of videoconferencing systems is that different solutions from different suppliers don’t talk to one another. NET, which focuses on interoperability solutions, says it doesn’t offer connectivity for telepresence systems today, but it’s investigating that opportunity.

Shoretel expects to offer interoperability between its own solutions and videoconferencing systems from other vendors within the next year, says Gavin, adding that there are interoperability standards that all the video vendors are working toward.

Gavin adds that mobility is also an important component of UC because “very few people today sit at their desks and take calls.” The Office Anywhere capability within ShoreTel’s Call Manager allows users to forward calls to their mobile or other remote phones, like a home office phone. Regardless of the number from which the individual is receiving the call, the system makes it look as if the call is coming from the user’s office phone, providing that individual with the ability to use his or her mobile or home phone without exposing the related numbers to outside callers.

NEC (News - Alert) Unified Solutions, Inc. also offers a mobility component to its UC solution. The company in September introduced significant updates to its unified communications suite, UC for Enterprise, including UCE Mobility, Microsoft (News - Alert) Outlook integration for UCE Desktop Client, and new integration capabilities for the UCE Attendant.

“As organizations trim expenses and look to improve efficiencies in their business, they understand that giving their employees access to mobility and collaboration tools can help fill in the gaps,” says Jay Krauser, general manager of core solutions and engineering at NEC Unified Solutions

In a different take on the idea of expanding the boundaries of UC, Michael Kropidlowski, senior product marketing manager of Aspect (News - Alert), says his company helps customer extend UC beyond the four walls of the contact center. Aspect, which sells both licensed and SaaS-based contact center applications with a heavy focus on productivity, offers ask-an-expertise functionality into the call center mix, he says. That means call center workers can easily use voice or IM to confer with knowledge workers in the enterprise to resolve issues. For example, if a call center agent is on a call about a billing question, that agent can employ UC – delivered through an Aspect solution integrated with Microsoft OCS – to reach out to someone in the billing department. IT

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