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Unified Communications
Now UC It
UC Mag
David Levy
President and CEO

Objectworld Communications

Unified Communications: The Future is Now

In my previous column I reviewed what SMBs want from UC solutions to address their business needs today. This column examines yet another key concern for the SMB: investing in an open and flexible solution that addresses their future needs.


Today, the market is almost overwhelmed with various offerings, each having slightly different feature functions, and all claiming roughly the same benefits: improving productivity, lowering costs, and simplifying administration. The market is already shaping up into two basically different offerings, neither with a strong, future-proof migration path. On one side will be those vendors committed to repackaging their PBX systems or their PBX replacement systems as their UC solution. This would include some incumbent vendors and vendors attempting to move customers to network-based solutions.


Whether it's a new PBX or a network-based PBX replacement, what these vendors want customers to do is rip and replace their existing system and buy a new one in order to get the benefits of UC. What these vendors want customers to buy amounts to another closed, primarily hardware-based solution, the future of which is another closed, primarily hardware-based solution. If a business wants to add additional collaboration tools down the road or integrate the business communications and their corporate data, it can look forward to expensive professional services and integration costs.


On the other side will be those vendors that see the PBX as the source of dial-tone and just want to add unified communications as an adjunct. These are often true software solutions, but what they don't provide is a VoIP solution that both integrates nicely with their unified communications capabilities and enables business to link their business communications with their business processes and corporate data. What these vendors lack is a migration path. If a business wants to switch to VoIP down the road, it will have to buy a whole new solution or spend an unknown amount of time and money integrating their UC solution with their VoIP solution.


Neither approach is necessarily open and flexible. Most vendors on either side don't allow customers to mix-andmatch phones from multiple vendors. They don't allow customers to mix-and-match gateways from multiple vendors. They don't provide a mix-and-match opportunity, for example, if a company wants to provide a consistent unified communications experience to some employees that may be on a VoIP system and others that may be on a PBX system. And despite partnerships promising interoperability, real interoperability is very limited and frequently requires expensive professional services to become a reality.


What would benefit SMBs most is a solution that can grow with them, that's completely (and truly) software-based, that includes everything from dial tone (telephony features) all the way up to unified messaging, unified communications and collaboration tools, and that allows them to choose the phones, gateways and other hardware, software and services that suit them, with the assurance that it will all work together. There's very little value to moving telephony and UC out of the proprietary CPE silo if alternative solutions are not open and flexible. The PBX and the phone should become just another computer peripheral.


Most of all, SMBs and their solution provider partners should consider that there are a number of ways that the needs of any particular SMB will evolve over time. For example, business communications and business intelligence will increasingly overlap. Call detail records and call recording will become an important part of business intelligence and corporate performance management. Knowing how a business' customers interact with its employees by phone, how long, on what topic, and whether or not these needs can be met via self-service could become as important as e-commerce metrics and data mining are today.


I also anticipate that rich wireless applications will leverage the power of SIP to allow business to provide a great deal of content to hand-held devices. Already smart phones, WLAN handsets, tablets, and other devices are changing the playing field for content providers. SIP adoption and the increasing reliability and importance of wireless networking will greatly accelerate that.


But short term, many businesses are happy if employees can provide customized messages based on who's calling them, fax from their desktops rather than the office fax machine, and receive their voicemails and faxes in their email inbox. It seems simple, but these small changes make huge differences in helping individual employees do their jobs effectively.


But what no SMB - no business period - wants is a solution that's so inflexible that it must be replaced in just a few years or a solution that's so closed that integrating the system with the rest of their data center ends up costing more than the system itself.


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