Unified Communications:: The Good, The Bad, The Ponzi

By Chris Talbot

After a difficult 2009, the unified communications market started to grow again in 2010, with many projects that had been put on hold because of restricted budgets finally coming to fruition. New players in the UC space entered the market, and some anticipated product releases were finally launched.

Although Gartner analyst Nick Jones recently called unified communications "the greatest scam since Ponzi," businesses are turning to unified communications in order to reduce costs and for the additional benefits they can’t get from traditional communications infrastructure. To be fair to Jones, though, he was putting unified communications down because it lacks a solid definition – an accusation the market has been hearing for some time.

At a research symposium in Sydney, Australia, he was quoted by Network World as saying, "I’ll give you the real definition: Unified communications is the bundle of things a vendor wants to sell you."

"I think what happened this year is there’s been talk lately about is UC dead, and the Gartner article about UC being the biggest scam since Ponzi, so there’s been some [talk] that UC isn’t meeting its expectations," said Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst at COMMfusion.

Even without a solid definition of the term, unified communications seems to be moving ahead and finding its niche in both SMBs and large enterprises.

How did the industry fare in 2010? Was there an increase or decrease?

There was a fairly nice bounce back from a dreadful 2009, with overall UC revenue growth in 2010 expected in 15 percent to 20 percent range, according to IDC," said Richard Costello, senior analyst of enterprise communications infrastructure at IDC.

Gazing at clouds

Cloud computing is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and 2010 was the year that it started to seep into the unified communications space. With a focus on outsourced and hosted unified communications services, the communications landscape is changing from businesses having solely on-premise hardware to a mix of on-premise and hosted solutions.

"We’ve been talking about SaaS and hosted services for awhile, but 2011 we’re definitely going to start seeing more companies doing it as opposed to just talking about it," Pleasant said. "Most of the vendors have announced or are announcing hosted SaaS-based offerings, but they haven’t had many customers yet. But I think we’re going to see more in 2011."

Cloud computing will have a big impact on UC infrastructure because some enterprises will want a mix of cloud and premise-based solutions, she said. Hybrid deployments will require a lot of integration to make them work.

At the same time, UC-based cloud services will give SMBs more options for their communications solutions, so it’s likely more smaller businesses will take the plunge with unified communications, she said.

A social media boost

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and other social media and social networking sites have been one of the hot consumer topics over the last couple of years, and businesses have both actively engaged the networks and taken heavy-handed approaches to keep employees from accessing them. In the business world, there is a new trend towards integrating unified communications with social networking tools.

"For 2011 -- and it’s starting now, but we’re definitely going to see more in 2011 -- is the integration of social media in the enterprise," Pleasant said. "Not just public things like Twitter or Facebook and public IM, but more enterprise tools."

IBM, Cisco Systems and other vendors are tying social media and networking capabilities together in solutions made specifically for the enterprise, she noted. Several niche players are also expanding into the enterprise with UC-based integration tools. These tools offer integration between social media and unified communications, taking the integration beyond wikis and text to voice and telephony.

Pleasant said she expects to see new social media platforms in the enterprise that integrate with public social media and unified communications. These platforms are already emerging with the likes of Cisco Quad and IBM Lotus Connections.

The rise of the tablets

The Apple iPad may have been the device to really put tablets into the mainstream consciousness, but vendors are working towards making enterprise-class tablets designed specifically to be tied into UC solutions. Two of the biggest UC vendors launched tablets in the second half of 2010. The Cisco Cius and the tablet included in the Avaya Flare Experience were both designed with UC in mind.

Several tablets are being used for UC and collaboration in the enterprise space, though. Costello noted that the Cisco Cius, Avaya Flare, Apple iPad, RIM Playbook, Samsung Galaxy and other Android-based tablets have been designed to support enterprise multi-modal collaboration applications. This trend is likely to continue through 2011.

However, UC tablets are likely to be specialized and not something everyone will have, Pleasant said.

"I’m kind of skeptical about the tablets coming from the telephony, UC and collaboration vendors," she said. "I think everyone’s going to have to have their UC capabilities working on the other tablets that are out there, but not the ones that are from the telephony manufacturers."

Mobile UC gets a push

With the growth in smartphones, it’s probably little surprise that another big trend of 2010 and going into 2011 is the proliferation of UC applications on mobile devices.

There has been "continued deployment of popular mobile devices on the consumer side (cellphones, smartphones, tablets, etc.) into the enterprise business environment," Costello said.

Consumer devices are finding their way more and more into businesses, and part of their use is in UC and collaboration. Features and applications supporting unified communications on mobile devices is already a trend that’s showing, but it will likely continue to grow in 2011.

Going face-to-face with video

Remember a time when video was almost strictly a consumer phenomenon, except for expensive videoconferencing room deployments? Those real-time video communications everyone was promised at the 1964 World’s Fair took awhile to make their way to the market, but it seems like UC has finally made it happen (so now where’s my jetpack?).

"Video capability is pushing down into the enterprise to desktop and mobile devices," Costello said. Businesses are finding ways to use video for both real-time communications and for information distribution, whether it’s via public video sites like YouTube or using their own internal technologies.

Through 2011, it’s likely that video will play an even bigger role.

"Video [will continue] to move downstream in the enterprise, to desktops and all kinds of mobile devices," Costello said.

New architectures and the launch of Lync

Microsoft made its biggest splash yet in the unified communications with the launch of Lync 2010 in November. According to Pleasant, many businesses were waiting for the release of Lync before committing to an investment in UC. Now that it’s available, there will be more activity and more companies making the switch to UC, she said.

Costello said that interest in Lync Server 2010 as a viable PBX replacement solution for organizations with a Microsoft infrastructure will be a driving force in the market in 2011.

At the same time, other UC vendors are releasing new architectures, including Mitel’s Freedom and Avaya’s Aura. However, new architectures will be tricky, Pleasant said.

"How much are people going to be willing to change? I’m kind of concerned that’s going to set things back," she said.

Collaborate better

Businesses are moving to unified communications because they have a desire to communication more effectively, and they see the business case for UC.

According to Costello, it’s "largely driven by multi-modal conferencing applications, and interest in inter- and intra-company telepresence and video conferencing."

The growth in UC in 2010 has also been driven by the integration of UC with businesses process specific to vertical markets and continued movement to IP telephony, he said.

The trends in 2010 will continue through 2011, but at the same time, there will be some technology trends next year that will be important to UC’s growth and adoption.

One of those is the federation among networks, which is the ability of different networks to interoperate and support similar features and capabilities, Costello said.

"This will allow users from different organizations, for example, to work together as if on the same UC platform, using shared presence information, instant messaging, conferencing, and other features," he said.

There will be further proliferation of SIP. As the dominant protocol used by UC vendors, it provides a common platform for hardware and software development, and the protocol’s adoption will be driven by continued cost restraints, IT organizational changes and the maturity of products from major vendors, he said.

"UC applications will need to be more tightly integrated to desktop computer applications and business processes. There will be an increase in the development of custom-made UC applications that are targeted to specific vertical industries needs. In addition, we will also see an increase in UC integration with social networking platforms being deployed in the enterprise," Costello said.


This article was originally published on 2010-12-23