Cisco, HP, Microsoft, Avaya, and Polycom Draw Battle Lines in Unified Communications War
Thousands of companies have deployed voice on their IP networks, and as the benefits of other unified communications technologies become more obvious, they're looking to build on their voice deployments and integrate communications together. The fractured market is made up of major vendors such as Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) acting as one-stop shops, alliances of vendors like HP (www.hp.com) and Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) providing multi-vendor solutions, and smaller vendors focusing on one piece of the overall pie. The growing unified communications space is becoming a major battleground for all vendors involved.
The biggest competitors in the space form a triangle. A traditional networking vendor that grew to encompass many advanced networking technologies, Cisco has a product portfolio that includes everything from the routers and switches to the IP phones. It offers a one-stop shop for business customers.
Avaya, on the other hand, came to the networking market from the voice world. The company has built on its expertise in telecommunications to become a major player in the unified communications world.
The final major player in the space is the alliance of HP, Microsoft and other vendors like Polycom.
Jonathan Edwards, analyst for unified communications and enterprise communications infrastructure at IDC, sees the unified communications market more as a battle between two different camps – a telephony approach like the one being taken by Cisco, Avaya, Siemens and Alcatel-Lucent, and the desktop approach being driven by Microsoft and IBM.
Within that is the "anyone but Cisco" camp, which has gained strength with the dissolving of ties between Cisco and HP. HP's product portfolio is not the strongest when it comes to unified communications, but it has aligned itself with Microsoft to provide businesses with their unified communications needs.
According to Edwards, there is an aggressive push by all vendors in the space. The battlelines are being drawn, particularly between Cisco and Microsoft, who are the respective leaders of the telephony and desktop camps, he said.
"All of these companies want to be the core to the UC environment," Edwards said. He added that unified communications is multi-vendor by definition, but all vendors want to be front and center to the architecture. Each player is approaching the market with its own core competencies (Microsoft with software, Cisco with networking, and Avaya with voice and contact center technologies).
Although the integration of voice, messaging and email are at the center of a unified communications strategy, the vendors are also butting heads in another growing area, said Michelle Warren, president of MW Research & Consulting. Video communications is growing in popularity, and there are desktop and telepresence applications from many of the vendors in the space. However, the real battleground is in applications, she said.
"It's all about apps these days, so which interface is easier to use," Warren said.
The overall unified communications market is still in its infancy, though. The market is expected to grow at a fast pace over the next few years. Data from Infonetics Research (http://www.infonetics.com/pr/2009/unified-communication-market-highlights.asp) indicates that it will top $1 billion by 2013.
"Overall, it's an interesting environment because historically the unified communications world has not come together the way its proponents thought it would five years ago," said John Byrne, director of Network Business Quarterly at Technology Business Research (TBRI). "The market just hasn't really taken off, so for all its promise, it hasn't really lived up to that. It certainly has a lot of potential in terms of collaboration and cost savings, but it hasn't come together as quickly as everybody hoped it would."
The recession has made unified communications a discretionary expense that can be put off. Making matters worse is the growing number of discussions around cloud computing, Byrne said. However, that could help unified communications in the end, as more cloud discussions are including unified communications. As a cloud play, unified communications could help organizations reduce their infrastructure costs and push parts of the unified communications market to a subscription-based service offering.
The giants in the industry have also been scooping up smaller vendors to build out their portfolios.
"I do see larger companies absorbing smaller companies so they can provide one-stop solutions," said Warren. "I'd say it's more of a solutions sale. It offers an opportunity for companies to really manage and control their telecommunications costs, their travel budget and improve their communications, either client-based communication or inter-office communication."
The technology has improved to the point where it's solving the problems vendors have been promising unified communications will solve for years, and it's now a much easier sell for IT departments than it was even two or three years ago, Warren said.