What's Unified Communications, and Does It Really Matter?

Convergence Corner

What's Unified Communications, and Does It Really Matter?

By Erik Linask, Group Editorial Director  |  November 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

For all its innovation and advancements, for the past half-decade the communications industry has struggled with a seemingly menial task surrounding one of its most popular terms – defining unified communications.

Most people talk about the PBX features, unified messaging, mobile integration, fax services, video calling and conferencing, IP endpoints, single-number reach, collaboration and content sharing, and more, with each vendor naturally focusing on its own core strengths among those various elements. Today, even social media has become a part of the UC conversation in many instances, along with integration into call center and CRM systems.

Then there’s the delivery model question. Is hosted or on-premises the better alternative, and what about cloud-based UC? Delivery inevitably brings the conversation right back to the features and capabilities above.

Likewise, each adopter of unified communications has a unique perspective on what he or she wants out of a UC solution, typically stemming from the state of existing technology and budgets, with the reality of use cases often playing second fiddle.

Interestingly, there is one physical component of unified communications that most people fail to include – it’s one that nearly every user can leverage, and it’s one that requires very little in the way of technical support.

It’s the headset.

Most of us live in states that have passed hands-free driving regulations and know well the benefits and convenience of wireless headsets. (Currently, well over half of the U.S. states have passed some form of mobile device usage while driving bans.) Likewise, we have also become intimate with our preferred style of headset. Some like smaller, lightweight units, while others are willing to forego size for audio quality.

Because the hands-free experience is a significant improvement over having to hold the handset to the ear, or the cell phone speaker option, which struggles in the quality department, users have also taken that experience into home and office environments.

Bluetooth headsets now can be easily paired with laptops, home phone systems like the Panasonic phones I recently purchased, and multipurpose desk units from vendors like Jabra (News - Alert), Plantronics, and Sennheiser. (I have Jabra and Sennheiser units on my desk that enable hands-free conversations via desk phone, mobile device, and laptop/softphone.)

When I spoke with Jabra’s Damon Williams in September at ITEXPO (News - Alert) West 2011, he noted the one major deficiency in the overall UC environment is that no single vendor, despite the plethora of quality products on the market, has been able to bring together all the different tools, devices, and applications that collectively make up a broad – and near-universally acceptable – definition of UC. Until Microsoft’s (News - Alert) second take at it with Lync.

Williams noted unified communications has, in fact, been a significant growth driver over the past year and a half, adding the company is really focusing its efforts on providing choice to businesses that they can, in turn, pass that on to their employees.

“The headset is becoming a more and more important part of the end-to-end solution,” he said. “But, the end user makes or breaks the solution that goes into a business.”

With that understanding, it follows that comfort, along with audio quality and features, play a role in design.

The next version of Jabra’s PRO line will continue building on simplicity of experience – easy and quick install with minimal, if any, IT involvement (I was able easily install mine in minutes) – and adding touchpad dialing instead of clicking with the mouse. It’s all about a more enjoyable and effortless user experience.

“I’m really excited about the whole UC piece and seeing it come together,” Williams said. “Now, it’s about what are you doing about UC, not that you are doing UC – that’s where UC originally failed, where everyone was trying to define UC.”

He’s right. We don’t define a car based on features or capabilities – we all agree a car is a vehicle, typically with four wheels, that serves as a human transport mechanism. Why can’t unified communications be just a vehicle that serves as a communications transport mechanism, with each user or business defining the specific features and capabilities for themselves, determined by their needs and budgets?

As for the headsets, the truth is there are a number of neat features vendors have added, but these gimmicky features are not going to be the long-term drivers of success. The two factors that will continue to overshadow others – especially as headsets become a greater part of the UC conversation – are audio quality and comfort. 

Erik Linask (News - Alert) is Group Editorial Director of TMC, which brings news and compelling feature articles, podcasts, and videos to 2,000,000 visitors each month. To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page. Follow Erik on Twitter (News - Alert) @elinask.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi