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Unified Communications Hype Rings Loud At VoiceCon Conference

As this week's conference in San Francisco wraps up, one thing is clear: The buzz level of unified communications doesn't match reality.

From the hallways to the exhibition floor to the lunch tables at last week's VoiceCon conference in San Francisco, most of the talk was about unified communications. Yet for all the vendor hype and modest customer interest, it won't become common anytime soon.

Microsoft managers took the podium at least five times to declare the coming omnipresence of one-stop, software-centric communications. Anoop Gupta, Microsoft's corporate VP of unified communications, said the transition to products such as Microsoft Office Communicator will be as big as the move from typewriters to PCs. Cisco, meanwhile, announced a handful of customers for its Unified Personal Communicator software, including Warner Pacific Insurance Services and JJ Food Service.

Yet it will be a few years before some ballyhooed products are available, and those implementing technologies will face hurdles with interoperability and integration with existing systems. And while there was a fair amount of buzz among conference attendees about the advantages of having voice calls, messaging, presence awareness, Web conferencing, data sharing, and click-to-call features from one smartphone or PC, it was mostly discussed as a hope chest item, not a budget-line one.

Coca-Cola Enterprises has put in a voice-over-IP network that supports 2,500 handsets and is planning for 50,000, says chief technology architect Ray Repic. Sometime after that—it's unclear when—Coca-Cola envisions unified communications. "The biggest problem is the prioritization of what we want to do," Repic says. "We can't do everything at once."

Microsoft and Nortel Networks last week tried to rekindle interest in a June announcement to co-develop unified communications software with a few more details about what's to come: Software that runs on "dual mode" handsets (a new category of mobile devices that transfer between cellular and Wi-Fi networks without interruption), and offerings for specific vertical markets. One idea, said Steve Slattery, Nortel's president of enterprise business, is a plug-in that adds collaboration and click-to-call functionality in a health-care records systems or MRI displays, improving communications among health-care providers and their patients.

But don't look for software from the Microsoft-Nortel partnership to emerge until 2008, the companies said last week, although two months ago they indicated it could happen as early as next year. A number of vendors last week also acknowledged interoperability issues, and the lack of a smooth migration path to integrated systems for companies that use a variety of communication products from various vendors.

"Your communications system is no good" if it works within your company but doesn't work with a business partner's platform, notes Gupta, which is why Microsoft is working to build partnerships in this area, including ones with Yahoo and AOL for interoperable instant messaging. And there are broader industry challenges: The Session Initiation Protocol standard, used to make VoIP systems interoperable, works well with basic telephony features and voice mail, yet hasn't been refined for interoperable call center processes, Web collaboration, whiteboarding, and file transfers.

No vendor offers the full gamut of features that have been described for unified communications. "Has [Unified Personal Communicator] got everything we've talked about at this conference? No," Cisco VP Rick Moran acknowledged during one session.

Economics are another challenge for IT managers trying to sell the technology to higher-ups. Gartner's return-on-investment analysis on the topic is vague: It says there's an 80% probability that by 2010 businesses that implement unified communications will have competitive and revenue benefits over those who haven't.

The vision of unified communications is a good one, but for many businesses, the gap between discussion and reality is at least a few years off.

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