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2/28/2011
03:43 PM
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Unified Communications Faces Interoperability Challenges

More companies are deploying unified communications, according to a panel at Enterprise Connect, and they're seeing improved productivity and collaboration as a result.

Is Unified Communications overhyped? No, according to vendors participating in a panel discussion at the Enterprise Connect conference in Orlando, Fla., who said the technology is coming into its prime. Ah, but is the technology interoperable? There, the crowd reaction told the story -- that it is not nearly interoperable enough.

Fred Knight, conference co-chair and publisher of TechWeb's NoJitter.com blog, and Jim Burton, CEO of the consulting firm CTLink, moderated the opening session of the conference, which this year changed its name from VoiceCon to reflect a broader focus.

Knight started off with the question about hype. John DelPizzo, unified communication and collaboration program director at IBM, conceded that marketing people at his firm and others have probably hung the UC label on a few more products and announcements than really deserved it. "So in that sense, it may be a little overhyped," he said. "But it's moving beyond just being a marketing buzzword and starting to be part of a real, substantial conversation with our customers."

Phil Edholm, vice president of technology strategy and innovation at Avaya, suggested UC would follow the same path as many other information technologies that have changed the way people work. "At some point, it looked like hype, but then it became transformation," he said.

"In the first phase, it was probably introduced to solve a problem, which was the fragmentation of communications," said Ross Sedgewick, vice president of global solutions marketing at Siemens Enterprise Communications. Now, companies who have put UC in place are starting to see some of the upside, in terms of improving productivity and collaboration, rather than just minimizing a problem, he said. Next, we'll see the emergence of "more holistic" communications services that embrace social media modes of interaction, he said.

Most of the panelists agreed that the prevalence of video is making UC more valuable, and Mark Bissell, Cisco director of unified communications, looked forward to the day when "we can bring video down to the cost of voice. A couple of Moore's Law cycles from now, it may seem odd if we can't see the other person on the call."

Burton changed the pace of the conversation by asking the audience to clap if they thought interoperability between UC products from different vendors was important -- big round of applause. And did they think the vendors were delivering it? Silence.

Sedgewick said it is "kind of unacceptable that there would not be interoperability" for basic services like presence detection, which allows participants in a UC network to decide which mode of communication would be most effective to reach a given colleague. Siemens has tried to address that challenge by supporting XMPP, which it considers to the most robust and widely supported protocol for presence and instant messaging, he said. Similarly, Siemens aims to use the same Session Initiation Protocol used for VoIP to also support videoconferencing, in preference over proprietary protocols, he said.

Warren Barkley, a general manager for Microsoft's Lync UC product, objected that there are still so many standards for things like UC presence "that it's tough to say how all this is going to converge." Beyond setting standards, the industry needs to get serious about testing and certification, he said.

"It's so bad that the Department of Defense drags us all out to a fort in the middle of the desert just to prove that we can do IM and presence interoperability," he said.

DelPizzo said IBM has embraced standards by necessity, since products like Lotus Sametime need to connect to voice and video services that IBM itself doesn't offer. At the same time, he couldn't resist pointing out that IBM has never been able to secure Microsoft's cooperation for integration with MSN Messenger, a common request from Sametime customers.

Cisco's Bissell agreed vendors play "a messy game" trying to work toward standards at the same time that they are competing and innovating. In the long run, Cisco always comes down on the side of standards as the best route to market growth, he said. "Yes, we'd love to differentiate, but as we get to standards, that's where this really accelerates," he said.

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