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8/29/2006
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Irwin Lazar
Irwin Lazar
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The Grand Unified Theory of Communications And Collaboration

At last week’s VoiceCon, “unified communications” was the buzzword of the day, with numerous vendors touting their UC wares, and a highly successful “conference within a conference” focused strictly on UC.  But UC is about more than technology.  The emergence of UC will radically change the way people communicate and collaborate.

But there is still a fair amount of confusion between unified communications and unified messaging, so let's start by defining these two terms.

Unified messaging. Unified messaging deals strictly with the integration of various stored messaging services such as voicemail, e-mail, and fax.  The nirvana of UM is a single user interface to various message stores, enabling such capabilities as listening to an e-mail via a telephone, or playing a voice mail from within an e-mail application. 

Unified communications. Unified communications is broader, focusing on a short-term and long term goal.

Short-term goal. The short-term goal is simple: unification of various services such as instant messaging, voice, and video into a presence-enabled dashboard for real-time communications. This will let you manage incoming and outgoing requests from within a single user interface at your desktop and perhaps even on your mobile device. 

With such a dashboard in place, you will be able to field communications requests regardless of service type, simply using a buddy list to control your availability, and see the availability of others.  Dashboards are often integrated with audio, video, and/or web conferencing applications to enable individual and group communications and collaboration.  Examples of products that already exist in this space include Siemens OpenScape, Nortel’s Multimedia Communications Server (MCS), Avaya one-X Desktop Edition (with SIP Enablement Services), and Microsoft’s Live Communications Server with the Office Communicator client.

Long-term goal. The long-term goal of unified communications is much broader: to extend enterprise communication and collaboration services throughout business applications and processes.  Indeed, many consider this goal as the one with the largest potential to shape communications and collaboration.  Whereas real-time communications dashboards serve to simplify and consolidate the many tools most of us already posses, in effect the long-term goal positions communications applications as a middleware layer, enabling communications between applications and individuals, or even between applications.

The potential for unified communications to transform business processes cannot be understated.  The integration of communications capabilities and services into business apps such as ERP, CRM, or other customized business process tools means that communications services are no longer separate from the enterprise application architecture. 

For example, think of opening up a client record within a CRM application and seeing if the customer representative is online, seeing who called that customer, when and for how long, and placing a call to the customer by simply clicking on a “call customer” button, which causes your desktop phone to dial the customer’s extension.  Taking the concept one step further, consider an incoming call from a customer that can be routed from within the CRM application to an internal service person who is both available and pre-qualified to address the customer’s request -- again, all without leaving the CRM screen.

Right now we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible in a unified communications environment.  Enterprises still struggling to integrate voice and data now have to figure out how to incorporate communications services into their service-oriented architecture models, with unified communications providing a web service that other applications can access as needed.

The emergence of unified communications represents a tearing down of the walls between enterprise applications, communications services, and networks.  UC will cause organizations to reorganize around support for business process improvement, not just deploy point solutions to address specific needs.  Companies that embrace the holistic communications and collaboration model provided by unified communications will gain a competitive edge.  Those that continue to keep voice and/or video separate from enterprise business processes and collaborative applications run the risk of falling behind their competitors, who will use UC to move faster and improve their efficiency.

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