As any regular reader of this blog knows, defining unified communications ought to be simple but isn’t. Partly, you can thank analysts like me for that—we all seem to have our own definition—but mostly, you can thank communications vendors, all of whom want to jump on the UC bandwagon to their specific advantage. While I can’t really fault the marketplace for that, it isn’t very useful, and it confuses matters for business and IT executives who are trying to decide whether to deploy UC technologies. In order to deploy them, they kind of have to know what they are.
To that end, my colleagues and I at Frost & Sullivan and Stratecast have developed our definition of unified communications. Here’s a look at what we came up with. For a more details, please visit http://www.frost.com/.
We consider unified communications to be a technology market sector: that is, a group of similar solutions using a common set of technologies that evolve over time. The term does not refer to a specific generation of capabilities – unified communications solutions will exist five years from now and have richer feature sets.
We begin by considering the attributes that make a definition of a technology market sector helpful rather than confusing. In our view a good definition will:
- Be reasonably consistent with industry practice. A linguistically or technologically sound definition that is at odds with the dominant usage among vendors just creates confusion. We don’t need to accept vendor definitions – but we should take them as a starting point and context in developing our own.
- Rule things in and out. If we are discussing “household pets,” defining a cat as an animal with four legs and a tail is not helpful: a dog also fits those criteria. For a term such as “unified communications” to be helpful it must enable us to recognize which product suites, technologies, and solutions fall under the UC umbrella, and which do not.
- Support an evolutionary view of technology. The definition should not be a snapshot that will become obsolete in six months, but should rather be broad enough to anticipate developments several years in the future. It should help us develop and critique vendor roadmaps. (If we were looking for a definition of a particular current product category rather than an evolving market sector this criterion would not apply—instead, we would want the definition to specify how the current products are different from both those that preceded them and those that will supplant them.)
- Begin with existing, understood concepts. Even if the technology trend is completely new and unfamiliar, the definition should provide a context to explore it in which the reader is comfortable. This opening perspective is not technologically precise – it provides a simple analogy from which the conversation can then begin to explore the ways in which the industry trend is actually different than the original model. (The first CRT terminals were described as “glass teletypes.”)
- Introduce new concepts. If the definition of a new industry term could just as easily describe products and technologies from ten years ago, the term has added nothing to our vocabulary.
These goals are somewhat in conflict. Ruling things in and out demands specificity, while taking an evolutionary view requires deliberate vagueness.
So how do we define UC? Unified Communications is the evolution of telephone, e-mail, conferencing and instant messaging functionality into a single service or application that provides the standard communications environment for the knowledge worker. Presence information is a core element in any UC application; the voice capabilities will most like be VoIP but may also include TDM voice transport; UC includes the ability to transparently connect to mobile colleagues; and UC supports communications enabled business processes.
If one thing is certain, it’s that UC will continue to evolve over the next several years, and capabilities that are now optional, perhaps including real-time video support and advanced social networking capabilities, will become standard components.
This is our starting point, and it’s the definition we’re using for our upcoming UC market study. But I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please send them to me or post them below.