Unified Communications heralds a worldwide change in the orientation of computer users, away from being focused inward and buried in their desktop applications, to looking outwards at their colleagues and customers via the Web. In short, today it's all about global collaboration.
The key paradigm of UC is "Ëœpresence', a collaborative tool that can help to overcome telephone tagging and waiting-for-the-email. Presence on your desktop tells you immediately if and how people will accept communications from you as an individual. For example, Microsoft's version of presence can be switched to five levels of availability depending who's calling: Personal, Team, Standard, Public and Blocked.
Such transparency requires people to adapt, as Andre Blumberg, Group IT Manager, Technology & Architecture, CLP points out: 'There's a generation problem; people under 30 know presence from MS Messenger, but others sometimes feel it invades their privacy. Yet the telephone invades our privacy and the results are uncertain, whether you are answering or making a call. Presence reduces both uncertainty and time-wasting human latency.'
UC beats IP desk phones
It's not so long since IP telephony and converged networks were the big news in communication, but users are far more enthusiastic about UC. 'I have a big IP handset on my desk, but I only use 5% of its features, because I don't remember the key codes for autodial and conference call,' said Blumberg. 'In Office Communicator and Outlook, every operation is intuitive. I don't have to call an impersonal number - I just click on a name in my email address book. How could one live without it‾'
Both Microsoft and IBM are investing heavily in UC. 'Lotus Notes 8 is the "Ëœdesktop of the future' because it consolidates all the users' collaboration tools into one screen,' said Tony Lee, Lotus Brand Manager, Software Group, IBM China/Hong Kong.
The early adopters of UC are big companies, because they can reap productivity gains immediately by improving collaboration between all their staff and locations. Linking staff between different organizations is not yet the norm, but two companies using Microsoft's Office Communication Server 2007 can be 'federated' together, enabling them to share UC functionality, including presence.
Apart from big companies, organizations with contact centers can radically improve their service delivery with UC. Alcatel-Lucent, for example, uses UC technology in its contact centers to link back office experts with customers in real-time.
Hosted and on-demand
The good news for small companies that don't have a PBX is that most vendors have hosted solutions with similar performance that avoids up-front investment.
'There are two main options today for small companies,' said Shalini Verma, Communications Research Manager, IDC AP. 'One is a hosted model, from a carrier, for example and the other is a software-as-a-service model. Both options are available for major UC systems.'
Nortel is one company that supports smaller clients: 'Our standard UC solution with IBM extends down to 200 users,' said Mike Macdonald, Lead Technologist and Visionary, Nortel Asia. 'A hosted UC model is available that can be used by a provider to offer UC flexibility in a more cost effective model. This solution could be leveraged for a small 10 person office up to tens of thousands of users, while offering all the same voice and UC features.'