The brave but speculative new world of unified communications

The promise of increased productivity

From keynote speeches to the show floor to back-hall meeting rooms, ubiquitous wireless broadband was one of the topics receiving the most buzz this week at the Interop networking show in Las Vegas. But fast wireless networks are only the beginning of the sea changes in mobile communications, said many vendors, observers and pundits.

Rather, they say we'll soon live in a world in which the network tells us where one another are located, how best to make contact and, after making contact, support collaboration and access to data from anywhere. The emerging buzz phrase for these capabilities is unified communications.

"That's the future," Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers said in his keynote Tuesday. "It's a hard concept [to understand], but it goes right to the issue of increased productivity."

The bottom line, Chambers and others said, is just that: the bottom line. Unified communications will speed business processes dramatically, which will result in more responsive companies and significant increases in productivity. But two big questions were also frequently repeated at Interop. First, when will this change occur? Second, is the technology up to the task?

What it will look like

Besides Cisco, Microsoft Corp. was another corporate force touting unified communications. Tuesday, Microsoft announced it has expanded the reach of its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007. In particular, the company announced the software now works with the wares of a number of PBX vendors.

"Voice used to be a silo application," Anthony Bawcutt, director of business development at Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, said in an interview. However, he said, products like OCS are moving toward unifying the multiple types of communication now deployed separately by both companies and individual users.

"Say I'm trying to communicate with you," Bawcutt said. "Unified communication is anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Say my preferred mode of communications is e-mail. Today, some people use IM to check on somebody's presence or availability or even send an instant message to say, 'Do you have a minute to talk?'"

However, with unified communications, Bawcutt said, you'll know where the other person is physically located so you can meet in person if they are nearby. The system is also aware of the different modes of communication available to them -- perhaps they are in their car and can only talk via their cell phone or in a remote office near a desk phone. If multiple modes are available, the system knows which way of communicating the person prefers or is most appropriate at any particular time.

The system is also capable of working with other applications so you could, for example, set up a collaboration session on a document you are developing with another person. It also seamlessly will be able to access back-office data. The productivity increase comes from being able to do things more quickly, no matter where other people are located.

Another thing that makes unified communications special, advocates claimed, is that it works over any type of IP network -- as long as there is enough bandwidth, of course -- and can be centrally managed via servers such as Microsoft's OCS. The fact that this is both IP based and server based should make it particularly appealing to companies, Bawcutt said.

"As we move to IP PBXs, the [physical PBX] box goes away and they become distributed applications," Bawcutt said. "Also, it can hook into Outlook, Word docs, SAP workflow applications; it's just another server managed by the IT department."

End users will like unified communications because it will simplify connectivity for them, he said. Specifically, it offers users single log-on and authentication to access all these various modes of communication. And it changes the whole paradigm of communicating with people.

"We want to get away from the idea that there are multiple ways of reaching you," Bawcutt said. "I should just try to communicate with you, select your name [from Outlook] and the communication gets mapped to whatever is available to you."

Besides greater control over communications, Bawcutt cited one other benefit of unified communications that will be particularly appealing to IT managers: cost.

"This moves [communications] from hardware (such as PBXs) to software, where we can drive the cost out of it," Bawcutt said. "So we drive the cost down and new people are coming into the workplace who were raised on instant messaging. I think there's a perfect storm brewing here."

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