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Fighting for the Soul of UC

You're always supposed to have a New Year's Resolution. It's a reflection of your mistakes of the past, cast as a commitment to the future. So now we're heading into a new year and a new decade, and maybe it's time for UC to have its own resolution. According to the enterprise surveys I completed just before the holidays, UC may be fighting for its soul in 2010.Behind the concept of UC today is the much older concept of voice telephony, of PBXs and key systems and TAPI. Politically and technically, vendors and users alike have tended to move into UC out of legacy voice systems. The evolution of old voice technology isn't very glamorous, and isn't seen by C-level executives as being strategic. In my latest survey of 277 enterprises, only 17 said that UC was "very strategic" to their business. By way of contrast, 229 said that cloud computing fit in that category, 87 said that smartphones fit, and 124 said that developer programs were strategic to them.

It seems pretty clear that UC is fighting some of the same issues that plain old telephony service (POTS) is fighting. Most calls today are carried by Class 5 and Class 4 switches whose design is 20 years old or more, but nobody talks about that technology any more. What's hot is VoIP or peer-to-peer voice like Skype, or maybe video calling and telepresence. Not only that, this stuff has been hot for almost all of the decade that's just ended. In UC today, most of the real call-handling is still done with legacy technology. Integration with collaborative tools and applications, developer programs and APIs and all that stuff are what's hot.

So what? Most people thought a decade or more ago that we'd get to VoIP by gradually evolving current voice systems to the new technology. That's not been the case; VoIP services today started out that way. The new technology for public voice that is shaping our voice future wasn't evolutionary, even though it could have been. Instead, we jumped over the transition into the new world. That meant that a lot of voice specialists and a lot of voice technology was relegated to a backwater in service strategy. PSTN voice is sitting around waiting to die. If UC is as rooted to the past in the enterprise as public voice services are in the carrier domain, it might be waiting to die too.

Look up UC developer programs on a search engine and you get about 6,000 hits. Look up smartphone developer programs and you get 47,000 hits. Look up "Unified Communications" and you get 3.9 million hits, where "cloud computing" gets 23.7 million. This, despite the fact that UC has been around a lot longer and there are a lot more UC installations than there are cloud computing installations. Skype gets 147 million hits, and collaboration gets about 90 million. In every way that's important, UC is being passed over in the grand strategic vision we have of the future. That shows in the surveys, in search results, and in the mindset of the managers who run enterprise UC programs. Eighty-nine percent of data center management said they gained influence in 2009. Ninety-four percent of UC management said they had lost strategic influence.

There are reasons why UC is bogged down in the past; voice equipment is expensive and its behavior is entrenched in the operating practices of entire companies. But that same thing is true about public voice switching, and nobody today believes that future voice services will evolve from current Class 5 switches. Will they believe that tomorrow about UC?

The developer challenge that the search results demonstrate is one of the key examples. If there is any trend in communications today that's virtually universal and regarded as absolutely critical everywhere and by everyone, it's developer programs and application stores. We just heard about how Apple has over 100,000 applications in its iPhone store, supporting over 2 billion downloads to date, and making at least one top developer organization a million bucks a month. This from a concept about a year old. Does anybody not believe that the app store is a key to iPhone success? Then why is UC not attracting that kind of support?

Avaya has admitted to being in talks with Skype. Might Avaya be launching a new vision of enterprise communication that's really a public service based on completely new voice technology? We are already at the point where it is easy to create an enterprise telephony service without a single piece of traditional equipment. We are already hosting UC in the cloud. If those concepts marry with a truly valuable global P2P voice service, then the whole concept of UC as we know it could be leapfrogged. Forget evolution, the revolution is here.

"Unified communications" is a defensive goal, a concept that--because it's based explicitly on a kind of consolidation--is also trapped in the zone of "cost-saving project." Of those C-level executives who thought UC was strategic, every one was involved in a UC project that totally bypassed current voice systems, current voice vendors, and current voice technology. Of the 6 percent of UC management who believed they had not lost strategic influence, every one was involved in a complete transformation of company communications, not an evolution.

The soul of UC is the soul of any technology-its ability to support the business mission so much better that the new benefits offset the cost. 2010 is the year that soul has to be found again, or UC will become just a cloud or handset application.