The Rose of Lync Conference 2014
"Unified Communications" by any other name--such as "universal communications"--is just as hard to define.
Shakespeare said it rather eloquently, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet." (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)
I would be the first to agree that the name "unified communications" does not adequately describe the multimodal way in which we communicate. Yet, does "universal communications" really do any better? What makes "universal communications" or "unified communications" is really in the eye of the beholder.
A few years ago, I interviewed a number of end users about "unified communications," trying to understand what this term meant to them. The feedback I received was telling.
One person said that when her company integrated its voice messaging system with email to create unified messaging, that was unified communications. Another spoke about the new single-number-reach their company had deployed as unified communications--a capability that rang multiple devices, thus "unifying" how employees could be reached. Another spoke about integrated conferencing with Web collaboration and audio...this was unified communications. Finally someone mentioned a system that included voice, video, and data integrated in a multimodal, easy-to-access and use interface.
While doing research on what people buy, it is clear that they really don't think about buying a "unified communications" or a "universal communications" system. In fact, one really can't buy a "unified communications" solution. If you begin with a telephony-based "unified communications" solution, you always begin with the call manager and then layer on other elements like IM/presence, conferencing, etc.
Likewise, if you begin with a collaboration-based "unified communications" solution (Lync or Sametime, for example), you start with IM/presence, then you usually layer on conferencing, and possibly voice. The licensing for both types of solutions implies point capabilities--you layer on capabilities with additional license types. All of this is a far cry from buying a "unified communications" or "universal communications" system.
I understand Microsoft's attempt to move beyond "unified communications" by introducing the term "universal communications;" the company is attempting to put in place a demarcation point between what we've done in the past and what we will do in the future. According to the Microsoft keynote address, this future is supposed to be one in which there is:
1. A consistent experience
2. Context awareness and application intelligence
3. Video everywhere
4. Global reach through cloud services
5. Device independence
Well, frankly, this sounds a lot like what unified communications was trying to do!
I'm reminded of another company that chose to try to rebrand the vision of the industry and to move away from the term "unified communications:" IBM, with its "social business" initiative. I understand that IBM was trying to elevate the conversation away from point capabilities and to define a place where it could differentiate itself in the market. The company quit using the term "unified communications" in any of its literature or discussions, and it quit relying on any analysts or consultants who worked in the "unified communications" space.
What happened with this initiative of disengagement from the industry terminology? I say this with no disrespect to IBM or its products, but IBM Sametime has ceased to be relevant, generally, in the communications space.
I'm not saying this will happen to Microsoft--"universal communications" is much closer to "unified communications" than is social business. However, Microsoft is walking a bit of a fine line with this "universal collaboration" initiative and the obvious focus we saw at Lync Conference on the blending of business communications and personal communications. In fact, we saw pictures of babies crawling on the floor, families using video, teenagers reaching out to others using Microsoft products, etc. Microsoft also made the point that 1/3 of all the world's telephony minutes are from Skype users--clearly an impressive statistic.
While all of this is true, I fundamentally believe that in everyday use, there is a big difference between the communications needs and desires in the consumer space and those in the business space. Most consumers use Skype as voice toll-call bypass, or as an inexpensive long distance solution. Furthermore, it is one thing to conference using Skype with my mom or my children, where I always want to see them. It's quite another to conference with business colleagues where I likely prefer a less intimate relationship and may choose to rarely use video.
Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the terms themselves that we use in discussing "universal communications" do little, really, to enhance or detract from the nature of the business we are all in--that of communicating our messages and content in the most effective way with others. It is simply another way of labeling an increasingly important and valuable set of capabilities we all rely on more and more regularly. As we enjoy the journey, may we remember to occasionally stop and smell the roses along the way!