Unified Communications: Communications, yeah. Unified? That's questionable

The term unified communications might have been a prediction of where the market would trend, but we never quite got there and are farther away than ever today

Unified Communications: Communications, yeah. Unified? That's questionable

Over the past weeks since Gartner released its 2016 Magic Quadrant on Unified Communications (UC) there have been a slew of articles explaininganalyzingextollingcelebrating and otherwise promoting the virtues of all things considered UC.

As I ponder the megabytes of wisdom, an increasingly uncomfortable feeling about the whole discussion persists. Although I use the words and the acronym like many others, there is something that bugs me about the whole discussion. The thing is, I can’t say any longer (or if ever) that I understand what the term is intended to describe.

When looking at the dictionary definitions for the term, we find the word "unified" is from a Latin root that means “one.” I have to ask: How does that apply here? One interface? One vendor? One handset?

The term vestigial—“forming a very small remnant of something that was once much larger or more noticeable”—comes to mind. I think this may have something to do with what I am feeling. That is that unified, in terms of communications, may hold some vestige of something that once had been or had been wished for, but is not so much any longer.

To make sure I am not missing the point, I went to the source. Gartner defines unified communications as products that “facilitate the interactive use of multiple enterprise communications methods … integrate communications channels (media), networks and systems, as well as IT business applications and, in some cases, consumer applications and devices.”

First of all, that’s a pretty catch-all description that is hardly precise.

Second, I’ve been in this business a long time, and for all the organizations I’ve come in contact with whose goal was dominion over the enterprise communications landscape, I can’t remember a single solution that did all of those things Gartner describes—no less that came in some unified form factor. From a hardware perspective alone, at best achieved has been a subset of the capabilities, and we were still talking about racks of servers and adjuncts that might carry a common logo.


The term unified communications originated in the 1980s. Marty Parker once wrote back then, “The idea of UC was emerging from the worlds of voice messaging, IVR, and email … voice mail systems with IVR-like features … email reader’ features on voicemail systems … unified messaging … brought together voice mail and email.”

Whoa. Wait a minute, Doc! A Back to the Future description of many smartphone apps. But wait, I don’t see any iOS or Android platforms in the Gartner Magic Quadrant.


With each new innovation in enterprise communications, it seems we get even farther way from the idea of unification. The choices for business voice calling are expanding and becoming increasingly fragmented. Newer entrants, including Google HangoutsSkype for BusinessUnify Circuit and Zang Spaces, join the traditional tools of the desk phone, softphone and PBX-like applications mapped to mobile devices.

If there is one aspect of the communication universe that resembles something that might be trending towards what could be described as unified communications, it is the messaging app category. Even here the market is far from unified with a proliferation of options and a fragmentation of approaches, including offers from ChatWorkFacebookFlowdockGitterGrapeGroup MeHip ChatSlackSteam ChatTelegramWeChatWhatsApp and Yahoo Messenger, just to name some of the most popular.

The words we use have meaning. When we use a descriptive name for a conceptual category, shouldn’t it at least resemble the true nature of those things that are considered included? The word unified related to enterprise communications today describes hardly anything coherently. In some context, unified communications borders on a non sequitur. This is especially true in terms of modern mobility.

The user

For the user, unified communications is not a concept that portrays the average person’s communications lifestyle. Maybe it did at some point in the past. Maybe the term was aspirational, a prediction of where the market would trend, but we never quite got there and are farther away than ever today.

Today, we each carry around or have on our desktop something that resembles an expanding toolkit made up of different capabilities provided by any number of different vendors. We pick from the tool drawer the individual implement that best serves us in each communications situation. Each to his own liking, we use one app to call and another to message. We each adapt the tool we use based upon whomever we are trying to reach and the specific context of the conversation. We mix and we match, but the experience is hardly unified.

New innovative ways of communicating are arriving with increasing velocity. Each seems to tear more at the cloth of the very idea of unified communications, if there ever existed such a common notion.

I guess the industry has to be called something. But on a competitive battlefield where there are billions of dollars at stake, shouldn’t there be a name that adequately describes what everyone is trying to achieve? With all our great minds in our industry, do you think we might come up with a term that isn’t technology’s equivalent to the Narwhal’s Tooth?

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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