Individual communications technologies are converging into an integrated whole. Unified communications (UC) is an outgrowth of a similar-sounding but different concept, unified messaging (UM). UC covers a broad range of applications -- e-mail, instant messaging, VoIP, voice mail, audio and video conferencing (encompassing desktop, application, and file sharing), fax, and even that elusive buzzword "presence."
As more and more of our communications take place across the IP network, it becomes easier to tie them together so users can access different communications methods in one centralized "place" and from a variety of different devices. Thus, you no longer must use your phone line to get your voice mail messages, turn on your computer to get your e-mail, or walk across the room to the fax machine.
Now, if you don't have a computer handy, you can call in and have your e-mail messages read to you. Or if you're sitting at the computer, you can check your voice mail messages and view your faxes from the same mailbox where you access your e-mail. It's all about convenience and making it easier for users to get their jobs done.
But it goes beyond that. Not only do you know where to find your messages, your messages also know where to find you -- while at the same time giving you control. An important element of UC is the "find me/follow me" feature that allows calls that come in on your office line, for instance, to also ring on your cell and/or home lines -- but only those you want and only when you want. Or send calls to voice mail and receive e-mail notification. Just how accessible you are is up to you, defined by your "presence," which lets others know whether and where you're available.
Mobility is also a big part of UC. With today's smart phones, handheld computers, and wireless-enabled laptops, you can not only remain in touch but participate in all types of communications no matter where you are.
Benefits to businesses
There are obvious benefits to businesses in using Internet-based communications that cost dramatically less than traditional telephone services. The savings in long-distance charges alone -- especially for businesses that operate internationally -- can add up to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Another important benefit is the ability to use employees' time in a more flexible and efficient way. By speeding up access to communications, you prevent delays in decision making and implementation of plans that can cost money, and you avoid making the wrong decisions due to not having all the needed information.
Many business tasks today are team-oriented and require the collaboration of a number of individuals, but bringing all team members together physically can be difficult and/or expensive. UC aids the collaboration process so that the right resources are available to each team member, in real time.
When less time is spent sitting and waiting, productivity increases. And when you make it easier and less frustrating for employees to get their work done, it results in a happier (and thus likely more productive) workforce.
The UC players and the cost of UC
Many of the major players in the UC industry are familiar names: Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft all offer sophisticated UC systems, as do a host of other well-known companies such as NEC, Ericsson, Avaya, Siemens, and Oracle. Many of these target enterprise customers, but lower cost solutions also exist for the SMB market.
Once you've chosen a UC platform, you can build the system to meet the needs and budget of your particular organization and then expand it as the company grows. A basic system may start with VoIP/IP PBX and voice mail, and integrate with e-mail. You could add more sophisticated technologies such as video conferencing later.
Starting from scratch, a UC system generally costs less than traditional, separate communications systems. However, most businesses today aren't starting from scratch when they deploy UC.
The transition can involve some substantial investment in equipment and software, even if the IP infrastructure is already in place. Some estimates show the average cost of implementation in the enterprise to be more than $500 per employee.
But smaller businesses can now get into the UC game with low-cost hosted services that offer basic UC capabilities without the large up-front capital expenditures. As the concept of Software as a Service (SaaS) takes hold, UC is likely to be one of many applications moving to this model.
Looking toward the future
As the way people work together changes, the technologies must change to accommodate them. The problem with much of today's technology is that there's too much of it, and it doesn't work together. By unifying the different modes of communication under one technological umbrella, we can bring order out of chaos.
In future articles, we'll examine new facets of UC, new products, and new ways of seamlessly integrating all of the different ways in which we communicate with each other with the goal of making our business (and personal) lives simpler, rather than more complex.
As with other technologies, the key to wider adoption and greater usability is the replacement of proprietary platforms with standards-based ones, and that's already happening in the world of UC. SIP is becoming the standard protocol for VoIP, and vendors are creating products that interoperate with those of other vendors, perhaps recognizing that the future of UC is about unification in more ways than one.
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Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.