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Unison Technologies is making a direct challenge to the traditional sales model for unified communications software, aiming directly at industry giants Microsoft and Google.

Unison’s new sponsor-supported model lets businesses download and use the company’s self-branded UC software for free, says Rurik Bradbury, chief marketing officer at Unison. The Unison software combines the best features of Microsoft’s enterprise Office Communications Server software and Google’s Google Apps but does them one better by dramatically cutting licensing and administration costs and providing an on-premises solution that is more secure than hosted solutions such as Google Apps, Bradbury says.

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"Our Unison software has the powerful enterprise UC capabilities of Microsoft, but with no license fees, and the low cost of Google Apps, except that it runs securely, on-premises, behind the company firewall, so you don’t have to host your data with Google or any other third party," he says.

The Unison software brings a serious contender to the UC market worldwide, especially for solution providers whose customers are SMBs, he adds.

Recent Ferris research from November 2008 estimates that total cost of ownership of Microsoft Unified Communications is about $108,000 per year for companies that deploy it, based on a model company with 50 employees at $180 per user per month. The research concluded that buying and operating the Microsoft solution will cost a typical 50-employee company an average of $180 per user per month, which equates to $2,160 per user each year or $108,000 per year for the company.

For an SMB especially, that’s a significant chunk of change and an investment that might not seem worthwhile as companies struggle to slash expenses in a tough economic climate.

"With the economic downturn, solution providers have a harder time selling a Microsoft solution that could cost as much as $108,000 per year," Bradbury says. The Unison solution’s free availability could help solution providers close more sales and drive revenues through back-end integration and consulting, he says.

Unison combines e-mail, telephony, instant messaging, calendars and contacts into a single system. It includes a Linux server, the Unison Server, which powers all text and voice communications for an organization, and Unison Desktop, a Windows- or Linux-based desktop client that gives employees all their communications capabilities in one application.

In Unison’s sponsored model, advertisements are delivered via the Unison desktop agents, served from a "fat client" implementation on the back end, Bradbury says. The advertisements are business- and technology-oriented, and there are no consumer-targeted ads.

So far, Canonical, a commercial sponsor of the Ubuntu Linux operating system distribution based in London, and Intermedia, a New York-based hosted business applications provider, have signed on as sponsors. Bradbury says that approximately 4,000 companies are beta testing Unison currently, and are providing feedback to the company that will be incorporated into future releases.

He adds that solution providers can pay a $50-per-seat fee and disconnect the software from the ad server if their customers don’t wish to use the ad-supported model.