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Feature Article
May 2002

True Unity: The Forces Of Technology And Business Are Driving Unified Communications


For nearly a decade the teletech industries have buzzed about unified messaging � the convergence of voice, fax, and e-mail messages into a common inbox accessible over the phone or on a PC. And the concept has always sounded great, especially in recent years as telecommunications applications have become increasingly speech-enabled, allowing users literally to tell their messaging systems what to do with minimal button pushing.

On the surface, it seems unified messaging arrived long ago, judging from the communications technology trends of the last decade. Adoption of cellular phones has exploded, rapidly evolving from static-prone analog services to ubiquitous dependable digital networks. Micrologic Research predicts manufacturers will ship more than 450 million mobile phones this year.

Use of personal digital assistants (PDAs) ballooned during the gadget-hungry �90s, multiplying beyond the briefcases of bustling corporate managers into the pockets of anyone active enough to need a compact, up-to-date address book. Research from market tracking firm NPD Intelect showed triple-digit sales growth for PDAs at the end of the last decade. At a similar frenetic pace, e-mail systems grew with the advance of the desktop computer and the World Wide Web, from the offices of the techno-savvy into the homes of Middle America. Along the way e-mail interfaces became contact managers, bringing together messaging, calendars, and address books.

But the truth beneath today�s dizzying array of communications options is that few consumers or businesses actually use their messaging services in concert. It�s true that one can use a cellular phone to retrieve voice mail from the office, or use a PDA to snag e-mail messages from the Internet. And yes, technologically progressive organizations have the latest operating platforms that allow desktop e-mail users to listen to voice mail by clicking an icon.

Still, today�s communications capabilities remain stubbornly in service silos, because the world�s telecommunications and data networks remain largely separate. The elements of messaging exist in different universes, making the term �unified� messaging a misnomer. Voice and fax traffic travels primarily across the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), while text traffic wends around the web of proprietary data networks that has come to be called the Internet.

The situation continues to evolve as the marketplace increasingly offers not only the means to unify messaging services, but it is also providing businesses and consumers with the motivation. While technological breakthroughs � such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) � are making communications convergence much less complex and expensive, today�s tightening, global economy is driving companies and individuals to find ever more ways to raise productivity and lower costs. This confluence of forces will deliver something beyond just unified messaging. The twenty-first century marketplace will offer unified communications � the fusion of not only the modes of messaging, but the technological infrastructure that carries them.

By definition, unified communications is a catchall phrase that encapsulates the cornucopia of integrated switching, messaging, and personal communications applications available to service providers and enterprise managers. Fatigued by the complexity and expense of the technology silos created by the natural evolution of PBX (Private Branch Exchange), voice messaging, and call center systems, users are ready for a streamlined approach to integrated, real-time services. Unified communications is consolidated access to all communications modes though a single portal with the global reach of the Internet.

The road to this destination has been a long and multi-lane communications highway. In the beginning, PBX systems brought businesses basic call handling, routing, and statistical tracking capabilities. As call handling features and enterprise networking requirements grew in sophistication, so did the beginnings of what would become the call center with the advent of hunt groups, automatic call distribution (ACD), centralized attendant service, and other capabilities. Soon vendors realized that some functionality was more efficiently delivered outside the core of the PBX in adjunct platforms. With the launch of voice mail, a sub-industry was created to handle the call-answering portion of the PBX puzzle.

Early voice mail systems, much like today�s follow-me-forward systems, were completely isolated from the corporate communications system. Eventually pioneers saw obvious labor-saving advantages in integrating PBXs and voice mail systems. Thus, call-answering and automated-attendant capabilities were born. The early days of voice messaging saw tremendous growth. In 1995, Dataquest reported that system shipments in the U.S. from 1990-1994 grew nearly 19 percent, with shipments of small 1�4 port systems leading with over 27 percent growth. By 1993, new communications companies appeared dedicated solely to the developing products that combined voice and e-mail messaging. These convergence precursors paved the way for today�s marketplace, where more than 100 companies provide some form of unified messaging capabilities.

In addition to voice messaging and call answering, other PBX adjuncts, such as the interactive voice response (IVR) system, and predictive dialers fed the infant call center industry, which really blossomed with the development of computer telephony integration (CTI), historical reporting, and forecasting. And as contact center refinements steadily devolved power to the customer, so did the enterprise communications network evolve to empower the worker. During the mid-90�s, sophisticated applications like fax and unified messaging, personal telephony applications, follow-me-forward services, and speech portals emerged, each with its own standards and platforms, each delivering a subset of features to users. However, it wasn�t until the widespread use of wireless technology that these technologies emerged as �must-haves� for mobile users. The introduction of �extra-PBX� users (mobile phones) created a new dilemma for systems managers: How could unified applications be efficiently provided and managed for user communities existing entirely beyond their span of control?

The Internet seemed the obvious answer to the challenge. As mentioned earlier, enterprise communication vendors were no strangers to combining voice and data in their networks, as demonstrated by the emergence and use of CTI. Starting in the late 90�s, IP-based packet networks started emerging as the transport method of choice, slowly replacing circuit-based networks. And naturally, as with other emerging technologies, competing standards emerged, too.

SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) is an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) signaling protocol for establishing real-time calls and conferences over IP networks. As the name implies, SIP initiates interactive communications sessions between users. �Initiating a session� requires determining where the called party is at any given moment. A user might have a PC at work or home, wireless telephone, or an IP desk phone on a manufacturing floor. The user might have a set work schedule, or be constantly on the road or in different buildings on an enterprise campus. It might be acceptable for a normal caller to wait while the system tries one location at a time according to user rules, or the urgency of the call could require that all phones be rung at once. This dynamic location information needs to be taken into account in order to find the user. SIP�s tremendous flexibility allows the servers to contact external location servers to determine user or routing policies, and therefore, does not bind the user into only one method of locating users.

In simple terms, SIP makes it possible to use the Internet to reach anyone, anywhere through any mode of messaging. That means SIP makes true unified communications possible.

The tightening global economy has created a ripe environment for an explosion of unified communications services. Just as technology is making it possible to keep pace with a 24-hour marketplace, the recent economic downturn is making it necessary to do more with less.

When applications such as unified messaging were first launched the typical target market for them was the �Road Warrior� set, specifically anyone spending the majority of time out of the office, such as sales representatives or executives. But now, with companies striving to get leaner and leaner, the population of workers dwelling beyond office borders is growing. In addition to traditional mobile workers � high-level executives, sales representatives, and traveling service personnel � telecommuters, knowledge workers, and collaborative workers have joined the list. By demanding flexibility in their work schedules, these groups have redefined the boundaries of the enterprise. According to a 2001 survey conducted by ITAC, an association for teleworkers, more than 28 million people � a jump of 17 percent from last year � work outside the office.

But regardless of their location, today�s workers and their employers expect productivity to meet or exceed in-the-office standards. And with most communications systems designed according to a definition of the enterprise that is quickly fading, companies have struggled with access, interoperability, and obsolescence issues � and paid dearly for them in terms of cost and productivity. Furthermore, external issues, such as the escalating cost of business travel and airline security concerns, have pressured corporate managers to develop ways to connect people without meeting face-to-face. Unified communications addresses all these concerns.

For users, SIP-based unified communications offers freedom and simplicity. They choose their access device � desktop computer, PDA, cell phone, etc. They have a single inbox with a single phone number and/or address. (As IP networks grow, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses eventually may essentially converge.) They can quickly review any mode of communication and respond in the most convenient mode. The bottom line is that they can communicate and collaborate with colleagues and customers more extensively and rapidly then ever before.

For enterprises, the simplification that SIP-based unified communications promises to deliver to the infrastructure and administration of their networks will lead to savings in terms of time, cost, and human resources. With technology giants, such as WorldCom and Microsoft committing to a future based on IP networks, the return on investment in unified communications by commercial businesses seems all but guaranteed.

The forces of technology and business have conspired in the past to keep the concept of unified communications from becoming reality. Now, it seems those same forces are dissolving obstacles rather than supporting them.

True unity is at hand.

Robin Love is a 20-year veteran of communications technology marketing. She is currently director of marketing for Webley Systems, Inc., a leading provider of communications convergence technology. Webley�s end-to-end Unified Communications solution is based on an open architecture, standards-based platform, which allows both the system and service to address the needs of individuals and businesses while maintaining the adaptability to grow with a company of any size. For more information, visit www.webley.com.

[ Return To The May 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Unified Communications: Moving Beyond the Inbox


Enterprise worker mobility is fast becoming the driving force for implementing a more efficient, more complete unified communications solution. It�s time to think outside the simple message inbox. A unified communications (UC) strategy is needed to achieve maximum productivity and profit margins outside of the office as well as inside. While traditional unified messaging provides organizations with the ability to access all message types in one place for easier information access, prioritizing, and archiving, unified communications is taking businesses further beyond the mailbox.

There is no industry-wide agreement on what makes a unified communications system, but according to Gartner Dataquest, �At its broadest level, UC includes any technologies required to support the paradigm of any content through any network to any device, any place, any time, and via any media.� The Unified-View, an industry and market consulting firm that specializes in unified communications, describes unified communications as �a concept, a definition of the possibilities and needs that we have to help us manage our ever-increasing communications load.�

In other words, UC provides organizations with the ability to manage many types of business information anywhere, anytime, through any communications device. It includes the appropriate tools to enhance the productivity of the entire workforce and ensure business objectives are met by traveling employees.

A recent study conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide found that 84 percent of respondents believe that in the future, mobile communications needs will increase. Additionally, 71 percent believe that at least 25 percent of their workforce would benefit from mobile wireless access.

Some key features generally accepted as components of unified communications:

Message Management
Unified messaging alone boasts significant time-savings and productivity enhancements. According to a time-motion study by COMgroup, mobile workers experienced a time-savings gain of 70 percent using unified messaging to check their messages as compared with the traditional means. Additionally, in-office professionals experienced a 53 percent time-savings using unified messaging to check all their messages from their inbox, as opposed to the traditional means of checking voice messages over the telephone, fax messages at the fax machine, and e-mail on the desktop PC.

The unified messaging mailbox also makes it easier to prioritize work, track customer communications, and file all messages relating to a given project in one folder.

Better Access To More Than Messages
Using wireless real-time access to groupware allows mobile workers to utilize downtime more effectively and to keep projects moving back at the office. Traveling executives can access their messages plus calendar, tasks, and contact lists from their wireless device � providing them with the ability to communicate while sitting in an airport or waiting for an appointment. When responding to e-mail with a full-featured UC solution, users have the choice to reply with a voice message instead of typing on a wireless device. With real-time response to questions and meeting invitations, work is not held up for those awaiting a reply.

Speech recognition is another feature of some UC systems. Voice commands can provide access to existing appointments, create new appointments, send and accept calendar invitations, find free time in a schedule, look up information such as addresses and telephone numbers, and work with new and forwarded messages.

Additionally, some UC systems offer the ability to remotely access corporate databases such as CRM and ERP.

Better Customer Communication
A UC system that includes Interactive Voice Response (IVR) connects customers, databases, telephones, and fax machines. Customers can call to access answers to specific questions through keypad or voice selections. They can place an order and receive faxed confirmation. Any information stored in a database can be spoken or faxed to your customer via IVR, providing immediate attention to specific inquiries. Callers receive accurate responses without busy signals or holding, and employees are freed up for other tasks.

With top-of-the line mobility solutions in place, out-of-office workers can more quickly respond to customer messages and even check information, such as order shipments or inventory, before replying to a customer.

Evaluating Your Company Needs
Each enterprise has a unique set of needs that can be addressed with UC. When reviewing the features above, it may also be helpful to examine whether the UC solution being considered offers modular, integrated components so that functionality can be purchased as needed. Also consider whether a potential solution would require purchasing specific mobile equipment or service from a specific carrier in order to be maintained.

Chris Davis is senior vice president of global marketing for Captaris. Captaris offers unified communications software solutions including network faxing, unified messaging, high-volume e-document delivery, and mobile wireless applications. For more information, visit them online at www.captaris.com.

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