The goal is simple: remove the barriers between devices and let workers share knowledge seamlessly. The advantages are better communication and less business travel, which enable enterprises to reduce their 'carbon footprint' and enhance their corporate image as environmentally friendly businesses. But between that ideal and the reality is a whole lot of technology and a few vendors that may or may not see eye-to-eye.
Gartner summed up this dilemma in a report on collaboration and communication. Matthew W. Cain, Gartner's vice president for research, said the technologies are coming together in a multitude of ways and creating confusion and opportunity in this fast-evolving market.
In his keynote address at the Microsoft unified communications (UC) launch held in San Francisco last October, Bill Gates compared UC to early GUI adaptation, where at first it was the sole province of early adopters but eventually became standard. He said the idea was to log in at the software level, and spoke of software becoming more ambitious, possibly in the area of 'software-bots.'
Cain said contributions to the rapid ascent of UC services come from the pervasive free access to the internet and, increasingly, from traditional in-house IT groups.
Is this a case of IT spawning yet another headache for the business units‾ Cain said not necessarily. 'While creating business value, UC will raise significant issues for every organization including justifying investments, coping with a changing array of vendors, understanding the role of voice in UC, creating a UC strategic plan, and creating a solid and manageable infrastructure for unified services.'
Another obstacle to mainstream acceptance is that UC solutions have tended to originate with IP PBX vendors. Though IP-based, those systems were still largely proprietary, with software tied tightly to hardware and their own client software for UC functions including instant messaging, VoIP calls, and audio or web conferencing. Instead of accessing UC functions from the Outlook, Office Communicator or Sametime clients that users already knew, they had to learn a new one.
Today, however, IP telephony and UC are moving toward a more IT-centric software architecture, laying the groundwork for broader acceptance. Traditional software players like Microsoft, IBM and Oracle are also getting into the act.
Microsoft's upcoming Office Communications Server includes several SIP-based VoIP calling features typically found in such IP PBXs as Cisco's CallManager, along with video and web conferencing, telephony management tools, and speech recognition. All of that, plus Microsoft's trademark IM has been rolled into a single package accessible from Office Communicator or Outlook. In OCS shops, Office users will theoretically be able to click on a person's name in any document, instantly obtain presence information, and then launch an IM, a voice call, or an audio or web conference.
PBX struggles to remain relevant
Nowadays, most of us rely on phone, email and sometimes IM for everyday communication. According to Microsoft, voice is the sticky point. Gates compared PBXs to mainframes in terms of centralization. 'This is just like the computer industry before the PC came along,' said Gates. He noted that expansions forced by traditional PBXs incurred costs and delays that he felt hampered his firm's global collaboration efforts.
'The average worker wastes 37 minutes a week playing phone tag or in voice mail jail,' said Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division.