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Fate and State of UC

Eric Krapf and I will be spending the next 30 or so days putting the finishing touches on the 2013 Enterprise Connect conference program, and so the fate and state of Unified Communications are top of mind.

UC has come a long way since it entered the market back around 2007; it is now an essential element in the foundation for enterprise communications and collaboration. Many of the folks who have experienced UC love it, and consider it more of a necessity than a convenience.

But in terms of actual deployments, UC appears only in pockets. There are thousands of desktops that are license-ready, but they haven't been turned on and so the vast majority of people who work in enterprises still don't know about or have access to many UC features and functionality.

This isn't entirely surprising, nor is it an indictment of UC as a product, service or technology. The pace of change in enterprise C&C is dictated less by the fact that a technology exists than by factors like depreciation cycles, business conditions and the actual nature of work an organization performs.

UC came on the scene just as the migration from TDM to IP was hitting a high point, and IP Telephony has been around so long that it's often taken for granted. But the migration is far from complete--only about one-third of U.S. enterprises have completed their rollouts. While UC is being implemented in IP, TDM and mixed TDM-IP environments, the less IP an enterprise has, the less likely it is to embrace UC.

UC also arrived just as smartphones and tablets were beginning to capture the attention and imagination of consumers--both personal and corporate. Mobility's impact on UC has been direct and immediate: Smartphones and tablets deliver much of the UC experience without the need for an enterprise-wide upgrade procurement or rollout. As these devices became de rigueur and as enterprises began adopting various forms of BYOD, the folks who needed UC the most got it via mobile. Going to smartphones and tablets has been the course of least resistance relative to getting UC into enterprises.

In short, UC didn't evolve in a vacuum; it has been buffeted by the tough business climate as well as by the waves of innovation that have washed over the industry in the past five years. Some of those waves have pushed UC closer to the promised land while others have had the effect of a rip tide, pushing UC farther away from the vision--and market penetration levels--that its proponents had hoped it would have achieved by now.

One of those waves involves the nature of the market itself: Compared to 2007, the market is much less monolithic, but while that hampers UC today, it bodes well for its future. The reality in today's market is that there's no single migration path to UC--you can go with a desktop-centric architecture or one that is telephony-centric; you can select a premises-based approach to communications and collaboration or you can move some or all to the Cloud; and you can mix and match all of the above.

Moreover, all of these relatively new options for architectures and delivery systems are reaching early maturity just as the early adopters of IP telephony are reaching full depreciation on their first-generation IP-PBXs. This sets the stage for major growth in communications and collaboration in general, and UC in particular.

So let's review where things stand: First, mobile UC is a reality--it's a proof point for what UC can deliver and it's becoming more entrenched. Second, while the economic outlook remains cloudy, a large and continuously growing number of enterprises have fully depreciated their existing systems and even if they just upgrade to the next release or newest version, UC will, by default, be included in whatever they buy. Third, no matter which architecture is selected--Cloud, premises, desktop- or telephony-centric--UC is baked in.

Death and taxes used to be the only sure things, but it looks more and more like a third is going to be added to that list--unified communications.