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2/24/2010
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Intermedia Launches Hosted UC For SMBs

The offering combines unified communications with the low-cost, turnkey appeal of SaaS, but it is still not clear that SMBs see the value of UC.

With the launch of Unison today, Intermedia stakes a claim to the unified communications (UC) market for SMBs. The hosted offering combines 6 core UC services - telephony, email, instant messaging, wireless integration, video conferencing, and collaboration - in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) package targeted to small and midsize businesses.

Unison integrates email, telephony, chat, presence, contacts, calendar, and supports mobile synchronization of email, contacts, and calendar. Backed by 24x7 support with a claimed call answer time of less than 60 seconds and an infrastructure that spans 4 data centers, Intermedia position the new offering as a low-cost, easy-to-manage communications service that will boost business productivity.

To support that productivity claim, Intermedia points to Sage Research findings indicating unified communications gives employees about an hour of time per day by allowing more efficient sharing of information and decision making. On the productivity front, Intermedia COO Jonathan McCormick sees UC offering similar benefits to businesses regardless of size. He says, "I believe UC is as beneficial for small companies as for large enterprises. We see the same need for collaboration across distributed workforces in small companies; the underlying benefit is as strong for SMBs as enterprises."

The other value propositions that Intermedia pushes are low cost and ease of management. On one hand, it is the classic SaaS argument, but one that may have more legs in the UC market given the complexities as noted by Osterman Research president, Michael Osterman. He says, "In the past, unified communications required complex integration of hardware, software, and service from multiple vendors - putting the approach out of reach for most SMBs."

Intermedia CEO Serguei Sofinski echoed Osterman's perspective, saying, "Complex implementations and high costs have shut small- and medium-sized businesses out of unified communications. Yet they need these benefits to level the playing field with big business and preserve funds for growth. Hosted Unison makes unified communications' benefits accessible. It's the next step in our continued mission to provide SMBs with powerful communications services that are incredibly reliable and simple to manage."

The Unison product page includes a host of pricing packages for different services, but leads with this asterisk-bearing teaser: "For around $25* per user per month, your business can have one system for e-mail, instant messaging, telephony with unlimited domestic calls, and voicemail." Intermedia COO McCormick indicates that the full-suite of UC services will run businesses in the neighborhood of $40-50 per month for each user with the base package starting at 5 users. He also notes - as you would expect with a SaaS offering - that no capital expenditures are required and points to the data protection benefits of a hosted service.

With UC there is always the question of legacy equipment and, according to McCormick, companies with PBX and older handsets will no longer need that equipment if they move to Unison. They can, however, use any VoIP phones they have in place. A new client with new direct dial numbers could be up and running within a day, he says. For companies that want Intermedia to port existing numbers to a Unison system, the Telcos dictate the timeline with an expected transition of around 30 days.

To date, Intermedia has been defined by its hosted Exchange offering, where it claims to have market leadership and more than 250,000 seats under management. That the provider's average Exchange customer has 13 seats bodes well for understanding the needs of SMBs, a target Intermedia defines as companies with 3 to 1,000 users. Understanding those needs, however, may not correlate directly to SMBs grasping the value of UC.

According to InformationWeek SMB research [Free download with registration] more than two-thirds of small and midsize companies don't recognize the term "unified communications." Yet, when offered a definition of UC and the components, almost 75% are familiar with the technologies.

That gap between understanding the overall solution and its component parts poses a challenge for Intermedia. It's a challenge McCormick acknowledges. He says, "To be honest, in the entire universe there's a misunderstanding about what UC is. Part of the reason for the confusion is the lack of a well-packaged product that has everything. That's part of the reason we've come to the game. SMBs agree they need those things [that comprise UC]. We believe we have a better way to deliver those things as a hosted solution."

According to Forrester Research principal analyst Henry Dewing, current economic conditions may contribute to SMBs reluctance to spend on UC. He says, "SMBs are definitely interested. They show a very similar interest level to enterprises. But their purchasing tends to lag." If that's the case, the intermittent signs of economic growth may combine with accessible pricing to lure SMBs.


Don't Miss: Unified Communications Puzzle Smaller Companies.


Follow Benjamin Tomkins on Twitter @http://twitter.com/benjamintomkins
Follow InformationWeek SMB on Twitter @http://twitter.com/infoweeksmb
Get InformationWeek SMB on your mobile device @http://mobile.bmighty.com

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