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Letting Go (of Phones) Is Hard To Do!

Unified Communications (UC) is bringing a major shift to the communications systems and solutions industry. Whether you look at UC for User Productivity (UC-U) or UC for Business Process optimization (UC-B), communications is now integrated with the users' applications environments. This means that UC has become part of the Enterprise Architecture (more here). UC software is now expected to run on enterprise computing platforms, including virtual machines and cloud computers, and UC user interfaces must run on the devices most appropriate for the specific UC Use Cases.

Every one of the eleven UC system suppliers reviewed in “UC Options: Who’s Offering What?" at VoiceCon Orlando 2010 (now Enterprise Connect) had their most advanced UC user interfaces running on PCs and Macs, both wired and wireless versions. With the appropriate headset, the user had the most functional phone they had ever seen, and with a video camera, they were in their own virtual meeting room.

Every one of the eleven suppliers, plus RIM, also offered software to make popular smart phones into very functional enterprise communications end-points. Either the users could choose the device they preferred or their employers could provide the best device for the user roles and the enterprise architecture. In some roles, there was no longer a need for a desk phone, often because there was no longer a need for a desk.

This evolution reflects a major point that Andy Grove, Chairman Emeritus of Intel made in his landmark book, "Only The Paranoid Survive," where he described the evolution of computing into interdependent architectural layers, with not more than three leaders in each layer. This occurs because a consolidated producer of each component can produce a far better product, with lower, volume-driven prices than can each system manufacturer producing their own components (think chips, disk drives, displays, operating systems, etc.). The same transition is now occurring in communications, both for the same compelling reasons, and because communications is now entirely a part of the same computing industry environment.

Yet, these lessons seem not entirely embraced by the communications systems companies in the case of telephones. To date, most producers do look to specialized, leading partners such as Plantronics, for the wired and wireless headsets, but not yet for the phone devices. Most continue to design and produce their own phones, rather than looking to the growing leaders in that category, such as Polycom, snom, LG-Nortel, and others in the desktop and SIP phone category. Yet, the increasingly successful software-based entrants to the market, such as Asterisk/Digium and Microsoft, are definitely adopting the partnership ecosystem model to provide a wide range of choices for their customers and prospects.

In some cases, the current providers even seem to be moving in the other direction. This week Cisco announced the Cisco Cius, a tablet computer with video-centric enhancements and communication and collaboration software modules. The tablet comes with a docking station, that includes a handset to provide an enhanced communication end point for the Cisco Unified Communications Manager. The Cisco Cius also includes security and Virtual Private Networking modules that may make the device more attractive for enterprise application access and IT management.

We've also heard presentations suggesting that Avaya might follow suit soon. Of course, it is great to see this creativity from leading communications systems providers, but history would suggest that the providers would accelerate UC adoption, enhance customer solutions, and even increase their bottom line profits by enabling partnerships with leading producers of such devices as Apple (iPad), Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony, Fujitsu, and Toshiba. Yes, these transitions are always hard. It changes traditional roles inside the communications systems company and requires skill with and dependency on external partnerships and alliances. But, in the end, the solution richness and pace of adoption have almost always been far greater and the solution costs lower when the open ecosystem model is followed. We'll stay tuned here at and at EnterpriseConnect.