The unified communications (UC) pitch we have all heard for some years is both clear and captivating: using just one desktop device a worker suddenly can take charge of a diversity of communications -- video, audio, you name it. For a generation that is what the U.S. industry sold and it definitely had its appeal.
There just one problem in 2012, or maybe two.
Today’s worker is “deskless” in many cases, said Michael Smith, a director of marketing for UC at Cisco. He or she may no longer have an office and, for sure, they do not want to be tethered to a desktop appliance that may promise to organize their lives but mainly seems more like an encumbrance.
The other problem is the bring your own device (BYOD) phenomenon has reshuffled the deck. “Workers want to use in the enterprise the technology they are using at home,” said Allan Mendelsohn, an executive with UC leader Avaya. At home that executive has Skype with video, maybe FaceTime on an iPad or iPhone, and lots of cool ways to organize communications and he wants to know why he cannot use such tools at work.
That creates a new problem for UC vendors but the other side of the coin is that, as the economy creaks out of its recession, there is a new buoyancy among UC sellers who believe that, finally, the market may have tipped in their favor. Add together dispersed workforces and a technology mash-up of enterprise and consumer gear, and what results is “more need for UC,” said Mendelsohn, who insisted, “Unified communications is about increased productivity through heightened collaboration. It is fairly easy to quantify the benefits.”
“What we have today is a genuine need for unified communications,” said Brendan Reidy, CEO of Clarus Systems, a leading UC player. “Between mobility and wireless, the need for UC in enterprise now is much higher.”
An unintended possibility is that BYOD may turn out to be exactly the spark UC needed to catch on in enterprise, said Gurmeet Lamba, a Clarus senior vice president. “Smartphones are what UC needed to tap into its full potential -- email, video, and speech [recognition] are on the device we all now carry.”
That is key. UC always involved putting new devices in front of workers. Now, in many installations, UC revolves around finding ways to integrate existing devices into an overall communications strategy with a sharp aim: greater efficiency in managing the voluminous incoming and outgoing. And a smartphone alone can be seen as a powerful UC toolbox.
A new definition of UC
Back up one step: exactly what is Unified Communications? A generation ago it meant pulling into one in-box faxes, email, and voice mail. Today, faxes seem headed toward extinction, voice mail is not far behind, and that leaves email but so what?
Christopher Kemmerer, a UC executive with Verizon, said that in his company’s view UC is about “video, audio, presence, and social tools, brought together. Five years ago,” he added, “UC was about putting a different phone on your desk. Now, it is very different. It is about simplifying the user experience and improving how people communicate. We don’t want to change how you communicate. We want to improve it.”
“One person’s UC is not another’s,” said Nick Balletta, CEO of webcasting company TalkPoint. It's Balletta’s contention that UC, increasingly, has a “fluid definition” and while that means it is vague, it also means the end products can be custom tailored to this company and this worker.
What also matters is the ubiquity of broadband because, suddenly, those dispersed workers can easily use UC tools to hold video power-meetings and, said Cisco’s Smith, “collaboration is better with video.”
“People now are feeling very comfortable with video,” Added Balletta. They use it with FaceTime and with Skype. A dozen years ago video might have seemed intrusive (even scary) and the image quality was usually wretched. Now, images are good and we have grown accustomed to seeing ourselves on screen.
Score one for the spread of UC.
Another plus of UC, especially in an era of far flung worker forces, is vendors are building in powerful conferencing tools. With Cisco’s WebEx, for instance, a name appears under the person who is talking at that moment, which takes out all the guesswork about who owns that voice.
Presence, too, is a time-saving plus. When toggles are properly set, it can eliminate lots of phone tag and voice mails. This highlights Avaya’s definition of new-style UC.
“We believe it is about bringing together the right people with the right information at the right time. It drives better results in the enterprise,” said Mendesohn. “That is why now is the time for UC."
As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1,500 articles for many of the nation's leading publications ranging from Upside to the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times. He has covered mobility since the birth of the cellular industry and PCs since the 1980s. He writes often about networking and security issues. Somewhere in there he also files a regular "Mobility Matters" on mobile banking for the Credit Union Times. While he does most of his writing on a Samsung Chromebook, he admits to Macbook Air envy.