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July 17, 2006

IP Networks Are Unifying Unified Communications

By John P. Joseph, TMCnet Voice Solutions Columnist

Discussions about unified communications tend to drift off in one of a hundred different directions because there are at least that many definitions of the term. It bends and stretches, expands and contracts to fit the speaker’s need of the moment.
“Unified communications” used to mean services like a universal inbox. Today it means find-me-follow-me, call routing, and presence-based communications. Sometimes it refers to applications like interactive IP television that are so far in the future they may never become a reality.
All of this begs the question, “What exactly is the definition of unified communications?”
The industry needs an explicit definition of unified communications because the definition will communicate unified communications’ potential for helping employees work faster, smarter and more accurately. Unified communications encompasses services like the examples above, but in the long run it’s about much more than supercharging today’s array of text and voice services.
The inevitable advent of all-IP networks means broad new arrays of customized applications that blend voice and data communications in ways we’ve barely started to consider.
The classic unified communications application from 10 years ago was a universal inbox that held both your voice messages and your e-mail—or a system that allowed you to “read” your e-mail over the phone. Since most people had e-mail and a desk phone, that was a nice convenience, but it never really caught on. The need wasn’t that great and the costs and complexity of deploying and maintaining the system were horrendous. Before adoption of it could take off, the universal inbox faded as the classic unified communications application. 
Today, everyone has a mobile phone and a PC and it’s common for people to also use SMS, one or two instant messaging accounts, a Skype (News - Alert) account and more to communicate with their business and personal contacts. The definition of unified communications has evolved to include any application that combines one or more of these modes of communication.
Examples of unified communications today include speech-enabled auto attendants with find-me/follow-me applications, and the ability to have call functionality (such as speed dialing, voice mail, directories and forwarding) on your desktop so you can take it on the road and use your PC both as a phone and a data device.
These are welcome features, but the growth of an all-IP world will inevitably expand unified communications beyond a simple combination of two communication modes.
Transmitting voice over IP allows us to combine voice and data applications in myriad ways to re-architect critical business functions. It will expand the definition of unified communications from simply talking or writing to another person to performing business tasks more efficiently and accurately.
Applications with no obvious communications dimension today—word processing, for example—will be integrated with voice and text messaging services to make work flow more freely around businesses. For instance, what if you could call a document’s author to ask a question simply by clicking on his/her name in the text? Or show your PowerPoint presentation to someone over a video conference while you are at the airport?
Pittsburgh-based Adherence Technologies Corporation’s AccuNurse application is a good example of how unified voice and data communications have the potential to break the traditional messaging mold. AccuNurse is a communication system that combines speech recognition and voice over IP technology. It unifies systems that didn’t connect before, such as a paging, documentation and patient database.
AccuNurse enables nursing staff at senior care facilities to reach other staff and find information whenever they want it and wherever they are located. The result is that they respond to patient needs more quickly, eliminate time consuming and inaccurate manual documentation, and improve patient care.  In other words, they totally redesigned how information flows within the nursing home, and achieved dramatically better results.

IP makes applications like AccuNurse feasible. Yes, it is technologically possible to create such an application combining a data network with a conventional TDM voice network. Possible, but not feasible. Between all the algorithms needed to translate voice into data and the myriad of other voice-data coordination hoops to jump through, the application would have been so expensive no one could have afforded it.
IP makes such an application possible and feasible. Although most companies are moving to all-IP networks for the cost savings, in the long run the true value is the ability to support applications like AccuNurse.  The companies that can leverage

the IP network to improve their operations will have a significant competitive advantage over those that can’t.
This discussion takes us back to the original quandary: what is the definition of unified communications? It should be clear from the examples in this article that unified communications evolves as the definition of communications evolves. A definition that includes specific communication modes will always become dated.
At the risk of adding to the static, here’s a suggestion: Unified communications is the ability to communicate in any common method with any information source (including data systems and people)  no matter where you are. Sure, it leaves out a lot of detail. But it provides a roadmap to where this should all be heading. 
John Joseph is vice president of corporate marketing at Envox Worldwide, a voice solutions provider based in Westborough, Mass.
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