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January 2007
Volume 10 / Number 1

Partnerships and Strategic Alliances are Key for UC Success

By Jim Burton


As if things weren’t complex enough, Unified Communications (UC) is adding an additional layer of complexity on top of already challenging voice and data (VoIP) integration. No single company can do it all and provide a complete solution, which makes strategic alliances and partnerships a requirement for vendors to deliver unified communications solutions.

Each vendor has its own set of products and services, requiring a number of partnerships to deliver on their promise of unified communications. Microsoft (News - Alert) and Cisco provide two examples of the different approaches vendors are taking to partnerships as they play leading roles in the evolving UC market. One is a software vendor partnering with hardware vendors, and the other offers both hardware and software, including a range of applications.

Recognizing that it can’t go it alone, Microsoft has announced a wide range of partners and strategic alliances as part of its UC strategy, and is developing an ecosystem to deliver the components that, as a software vendor, it will not provide. Microsoft has no intention of manufacturing UC equipment and peripheral devices, and instead is working closely with selected partners to provide everything from high-end phones to low-level interfaces. For example, Microsoft is integrating with select IP handset vendors such as Polycom, LG Nortel (News - Alert) and Thomson, and USB handset and wireless USB headset vendors, partnering with device manufacturers such as GN Netcom, Plantronics, Tatung, and others to “deliver a compelling communication experience on the PC.” By broadening its ecosystem, Microsoft is positioning itself to help promote innovation and lower prices. Microsoft is providing a very well-defined framework, and has developed reference designs for many of the hardware components, including phones and gateways.

Rather than selling parts of a UC solution, Microsoft’s goal is to work with strategic alliance partners to have a broad and tightly integrated solution out of the gate when its products become generally available next summer (acknowledging that the initial offering will have limited features and bells and whistles in some areas).

However, Microsoft will have to manage these partnerships, ensuring that releases are current and interoperable, and that development cycles are in synch. It’s one thing to work with several partners, it’s another to make those partnerships work in the short and long term.

At the other end of the spectrum is Cisco, with a broad product offering that includes both hardware and software offerings, as well as applications such as messaging, contact center, and collaboration. Cisco has a history of partnering with companies and ultimately acquiring them — the most recent examples being Metreos, Audium, and Orative (News - Alert).

While trying to provide as much of the solution as possible, even Cisco can’t do it alone, and the company works with a wide range of partners that provide important components, including conference phones and cell phones, as well as enhancements to Cisco’s application solutions, filling the gaps where needed. This provides an opportunity for vendor and system integration partners to work jointly with companies like Cisco to provide capabilities that enhance their existing product offerings. As the market evolves, there will be plenty of opportunity to “plug the holes” in various vendors’ offerings, but finding the right partners and managing the relationships will be essential.

The biggest challenge facing Cisco (and most other UC players) will be tightly integrating all of the components that make up their UC offerings. After all, unified communications is “communications integrated to optimize business processes,” and integration is the key, and the challenge. System integrators and third-party developers will play a crucial role in tying together the pieces and completing the solution.

Just as enterprise customers are taking an inventory of their assets and developing a migration strategy, so too should vendors, while taking a fresh look at business development. Like any relationship, good partnerships take work, and when given the option, it is best to find a partner that can add value for the long term.

In this early phase of the evolving unified communications industry, “co-opetition” is the rule, and it’s critical that vendors develop strategies for how they will compete and cooperate. Cisco and Microsoft have shown two paths (acquisitions and partnership framework), but most vendors do not have the resources and clout of these industry giants and will have to find other paths. As in life, there is no single correct path.

Jim Burton is Founder and CEO of CT Link, LLC. Burton founded the consulting firm in 1989 to help clients in the converging voice, data and networking industries with strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, strategic alliances and distribution issues.

In 2004 Burton wrote a white paper — “The Communications/Information Productivity Revolution” which predicted the evolution from basic VoIP communications to what today is called Unified Communications. The white paper can be found at In 2006 Burton, along with several industry consultants/analysts, formed an alliance to provide resources for enterprise, vendors, system integrators and anyone interested in the growing Unified Communications arena. Their work can be found on


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