UCI Forum: One Year and Counting
The need for improved UC interoperability is clear and voiced by users consistently, but without widespread support from vendors or membership insistence from end users, the effort could still fail.
A little over a year ago the UCI Forum was created to improve interoperability within Unified Communications. UC interoperability is abysmal; a user's telephone number and email are about the only aspects of the communications suite that is completely vendor independent. SMS, IM, video, wideband audio, and other aspects of UC all represent vendor islands, and it is holding back the industry. Nearly every major vendor publicly states they are open and embrace standards, but clearly that isn't sufficient to assure interoperability.
The UCI Forum (Unified Communications Interoperability Forum) is not a standards organization. Its mission, as a vendor consortium, is to define implementation practices, and to create a verification program to ensure uniform compatibility with those practices. Because the UCI Forum leverages existing standards and profiles to achieve this, the work will often involve teaming with standards organizations and industry consortia.
The model has proven necessary in other sectors as compliance with standards does not ensure interoperability. Consider SIP: despite clear standards, vendors and carriers must still perform extensive testing to assure successful interconnection. On the other hand, USB and Wi-Fi are two technologies that experience a high degree of interoperability--largely as a result of the industry consortiums (USB-IF and Wi-Fi Alliance) that put forth best practices and compliance testing.
The UCI Forum was initiated by five companies (Microsoft, Polycom, Juniper, HP, and LifeSize/Logitech) and in its first year, membership expanded to 38 vendors. The membership roster is still missing a few notables including Avaya, Cisco, IBM, and Skype. Nor are many "traditional" telephone system vendors involved so far; Siemens Enterprise and Alcatel-Lucent appear to be the only "traditional" telephone system members.
Should the UCI Forum enjoy long-term success, its interoperability criteria and priorities will be set with light representation from voice and strong representation from video (Polycom, RADVISION, Logitech, Teliris, Vidyo) and networking (HP, Juniper, Edgewater, Brocade, Aruba) sectors. Cisco's importance in video, networking, and voice makes its absence particularly vexing. A Cisco spokesperson defended its decision not to join:
We do believe that interoperability is very important and agree with the intent of the UCIF. We seek to participate in forums that will advance existing standards, have a consensus-driven decision model, and include wide participation, including market leaders across the industry landscape, to ensure the right level of industry leadership.
Clearly something, perceived or actual, is convincing Cisco (and others?) that the UCI Forum does not represent exactly what it claims to be. Or is it simply that market share leaders have the most to lose with improved interoperability? Skype, for example, makes no claims whatsoever about interoperability, thus their absence isn’t so surprising.
But if not the UCI Forum, then what effort will address UC interoperability? Being "committed to standards" is not enough, nor are the standards organizations addressing the void. The Forum represents several companies conversing to improve UC interoperability; is there a better alternative?
There was initial concern that the Forum was controlled by its founders. Some of the founding board seats had extended terms, reportedly to ensure stability before elections. As that contributed to a "stacked" perception, the bylaws were updated putting all seats on equal terms. The fact remains full fledged competitors that have joined the UCIF are indeed investing time and money in the name of improved interoperability.
The current state of interoperability is requiring vendors, customers, and carriers to sort it out on their own. IM and presence are being addressed with one-off federations. SIP compatibility requires unique testing to verify supportable pairings. Wideband audio between systems is practically non-existent despite equipment capability on both ends, and the world of video (any-to-any between room, desk, and mobile) has very limited support between vendor solutions.
It has now been a year--a first year, but a year nonetheless. Let's take a look.