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Just about everybody in the channel would agree that unified communications have been a frustrating experience. While the technology holds great promise, the effort required to get customers to first test and then actually deploy it can be nothing short of herculean.

But all that may be about to finally change for the better now that unified communications is going to be increasingly delivered as a service via the cloud. Rather than begging customers to devote resources to setting up complicated unified communications systems on premise and then finding the funding for the network upgrades that almost always required, unified communications as a service promises to be a lot more accessible.

This is one of the primary reasons that Shoretel, a provider of unified communications software decided earlier this year to acquire M5 Networks, a provider of unified communications software that is delivered as a service. According to M5 president Dan Hoffman, customers want to have an experience at work that is similar to the unified communications experience than can now routinely have at home using the Web.

While companies such as Microsoft and Cisco have done a great job evangelizing that concept, the fact remains that even their latest offerings are still fairly complex to deploy and manage. Microsoft Lync, for example, can require as many as 13 separate server applications to get completely installed, says Hoffman. 

In contrast, the M5 offering is delivered as a service that mirrors the way most customers want to buy telecommunications services. The end result is an available market of unified communication services that is substantially larger. To help make that happen M5 recently released the M5 Portal, an enhanced customer administrative tool and business intelligence interface for its cloud phone system. It is intended to provide a single application for managing user preferences, system configuration and business intelligence data via a Web interface.

Longer term Hoffman says that integration with Microsoft Lync will be important, but only in the context of what makes sense in terms of providing customers with the broadest set of workflow capabilities possible.

As a unit of Shoretel, M5 continues to operate as an independent entity. The only immediate integration plans are to incorporate some additional mobile computing capability that Shoretel has into the M5 platform and replace Cisco handsets with ones from Shoretel, says Hoffman. That mobile capability, adds Hoffman, will prove critical in an era where customers expect to be able to access communications services from almost anywhere using a variety of mobile computing devices.

The shift to unified communications as a service has been a long time in coming. While the availability of more unified communications services will most certainly help expand the size of the market, there remain a number of interoperability challenges. On one hand those challenges can create integration opportunities for the channel, but by and large they tend to do more to dissuade customers from upgrading their existing communications systems.

But as more customers think about how the unified communications experience they routinely use at home can be applied to work, it should only be a matter of time before users start clamoring to have that same capability in the office.