Now UC It

Has UC Finally Hit the Mainstream?

By David Schenkel, Senior Technology Analyst, ADTRAN

Is classic PBX (News - Alert) functionality good enough? Do most business communications systems now need to have the ability to provide at least some aspects of unified communications? It seems so.

Results from a recent analyst survey indicate that more than half of businesses have already deployed some aspect of UC, or plan to do so in the next couple of years. We're already seeing this trend at ADTRAN (News - Alert) as an increasing number of businesses are requesting at least one UC feature in their NetVanta IP Telephony systems.

It's been a long haul since I got into the UC business back in 2003 when David Levy and I started Objectworld (News - Alert) Communications. Back then, when we talked about UC we got a lot of blank stares, and our sales process involved a lot of channel and end user education.

But here we are seven years later, and just about all of the legacy PBX vendors have UC products. Additionally, resellers in the IP networking, PBX and IT channels have at least a basic understanding of the value proposition of some aspects of UC. And a growing number of end users with IT infrastructure, mostly in mid- to large-sized companies, are now seeing the value in some aspect of UC, with growing recognition by innovators in smaller companies. As a result, vendors and channel partners alike will need to continue to invest in education for their tech and sales teams before the majority of new deployments and upgrades can include one or more aspects of UC.

Indeed, the expectations of UC have changed quite radically in the last few years. Rather than trying to define UC as a fixed set of features, there's a growing understanding that UC is a fairly wide range of integrated communications features and functionality that can be used to optimize business processes (as defined by our friends at the UC Strategies Group). The key point we need to stress about UC, from a business perspective, is not what it is, but rather what UC actually does to make a business more successful. This sets UC apart from PBXs because businesses need to see an ROI when deploying UC. Fortunately, vendors and resellers alike have developed ROI business cases for UC features in the last few years, making it easier for businesses to justify UC and quantify its success.

Defining ROI with UC can be difficult, though, because the combination of UC features used by any given business to optimize its business processes is as varied as the businesses themselves. And those features can range from high-end telepresence, to instant messaging and presence, to unified messaging and fax, conferencing, paging, fixed mobile convergence, notification services, integrated voice response, and so forth. Given the range of UC capabilities out there, it's difficult to imagine a business that can't find at least one ROI associated with UC that will significantly improve a business process (one of those lurking UC ROI opportunities we've talked about in previous articles). So it doesn't matter if a business is planning to simply add UM by itself, adding telepresence, using IVR to facilitate 24/7 customer service, or deploying an appointment reminder service - if you are using at least one of the myriad features of UC, you will have a UC requirement for your business communications system.

Even if businesses aren't planning on deploying UC initially, they will want to acquire systems that can support UC capabilities at a later date without having to rip and replace. UC systems that provide PBX functionality and support some combination of the basic features of UC (such as unified messaging, fax, auto attendants, IM and presence, conferencing, notification or integrated voice response) are now, by and large, no more expensive than a PBX that can't be upgraded to support UC.

With little or no price differential and more functionality, it's easy to see why businesses will opt to buy a UC-capable system over a classic PBX. Even in the less than 30-user realm, once dominated by key systems, we have started to see the demand for UC features as small business users become accustomed to UC features now available in service provider consumer products. And that's why classic PBX functionality usually isn't good enough anymore when you are looking for a business communications system.

So, has UC hit the mainstream? And have we hit the point where vendors can't sell a business communications system that doesn't have UC capabilities? For large corporate and mid-market size systems, I think the answer is a resounding, "yes." For systems that serve fewer than 100 users, and down into key systems with fewer than 30 users, we're not there yet. But watch out. I expect things will rapidly change over the next two years as UC vendors, like ADTRAN, attack this market with cost-effective and innovative UC solutions that will be hard to resist.