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Interview with NEC Unified President Jeff Kane

I had a chance to sit down last week with Jeffrey P. Kane, president of NEC Unified Solutions. Kane is a Naval Academy grad who came to NEC as VP of Sales in 2006, moving over from Perot Systems and, prior to that, EDS. He became NEC Unified's president in April 2007.

Kane freely admits that he knew little about voice when he started at NEC, but nowadays his previous life as an expert on ERP and systems integration makes NEC's choice of him seem pretty smart.

In the course of our conversation, Kane laid out the company's market vision, announced as NEC's new Univerge360 model. I discussed one of this announcement's core concepts, that of roles, in a post last week. I forgot to include this explanation of roles that NEC provides, which I think fairly sums it up: "Instead of technology defining how people communicate in a role, the role needs to define the technology used to communicate."

The first thing that Jeff Kane stressed about the new NEC is his assertion that the parent company has come around to a much less Japan-centric view of products and technology; "Not everything has to be invented in Japan," is how Kane put it. For developments in North America, that fits well with last year's acquisition of Sphere Communications, which has been a pioneer in SOA-driven communications.

Kane homed in on the challenge for enterprise staff who must make applications decisions, who are being besieged by everyone from the UC vendors to ERP vendors, to Microsoft looking for them to upgrade desktops. "The applications people in our customer base, that's not a job I'd want right now," he said. "At the network level, [integration] is a challenge. At the application level, I can't imagine it."

That, of course, is where NEC Unified is trying to position itself. The company is focusing on the verticals of health care, hospitality and higher education for building custom applications. The company also has 2,000 ISVs in its Univerge Partner Program, Kane said.

Part of the first step in becoming an integrator was making NEC's own gear easier to integrate across product lines and with third-party software. Jeff Kane explained that across NEC's small-business, enterprise and Sphere products, each has had a different interface, but the company will be releasing an API common to all three later this year, to be called NEC OW5000.

Another piece of the integration picture is NEC's existing services portfolio, which has had managed communications and NOC security administration, among other offerings. Kane sees an increasingly prominent role for these services, though as we indicated at the outset, he's not the only "legacy PBX" vendor exec who's making that pitch. Ultimately, as with the other companies in this market, how well NEC does as an integrator is likely to come down to individuals and execution, rather than grand strategies. You'd have to think Kane would be well positioned to succeed at this execution, given his background.

One of the criticisms of NEC Unified's go-to-market strategies over the past few years has been that they continue to re-sell Cisco voice products along with their own. Jeff Kane says NEC Unified will continue to do this where necessary, though he insisted that this consititutes just a "little bit" of their business, and "it has not been increasing."

To conclude on a hopeful note, and one where I share Jeff Kane's optimism, Kane says this is a great time to be connected with voice and other real-time communications, because in spite of the integration challenges, the entry of companies like Cisco and Microsoft has brought voice to a new level of prominence within the enterprise: Cisco's and Microsoft's involvement, Kane said, "has [gotten] CIOs involved in voice [technology buying] conversations."