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A Rose By Any Other Name

Well, the debate on the definition of Unified Communications is raging again (visit the What is UC? Forum at As often occurs, vendors focus their marketing spending on differentiation, which means there is constant rebranding of products (or even entire market categories); thus we see many terms for "UC" such as CEBP, IPA, or Collaboration. Other vendors, wanting to link their products to the UC momentum, are applying UC branding to components of UC solutions; this linkage is certainly good marketing, unless the marketing material claims that the component, on its own, is a complete UC solution.All this is no surprise. It happens all the time and in many markets, so we should expect it here, too.

So, what to do about it? Again using the past as a guide, one approach is to focus intensely on the actual results in the market place, i.e. what the customers are buying and effectively deploying. Then, the categorization and naming will become obvious.

As a parallel historical example, the early automobiles had a wide variety of names: horseless carriage, autocar, roadster, tin lizzy, and more. The engines were electric, gas, and steam. And you couldn't even constrain the definition by listing components. Some early automobiles could be steered with tillers, while others used steering wheels. Some had three wheels, some had four; wheels were wood, iron, solid rubber, or tubes. But the point was clear that the horse was no longer the premier form of motive power.

It took almost three decades for that transition (the US Army still used mostly horse-drawn vehicles in WWI, 20 years after the first automobiles), but the change just kept coming. By the middle of the 20th century, the automobile had redefined most industrial societies, changing cities, services, and social structures. The results were more efficient business methods and more personal convenience, though with some generally unanticipated downside costs.

Now, we're faced with the same diversity of change in business communications. New methods for communications have arrived on the scene and we're struggling to organize and maintain them into neat categories. For now, one of the broadest general terms is Unified Communications. Yet, there are also adjacent or subordinate or overlapping categories, such as Communications Enabled Business Processes (CEBP), or Collaboration, or Integrated Process Automation (IPA), names all currently in use in relationship to UC.

History suggests that we stay focused on what is happening more than debating the naming conventions. Some clear patterns emerge:

* Communications are moving into a multi-channel, multi-media format. Presence indication, often in an IM context, has many advantages over dial tone. Web conferences with desktop sharing are often more effective than e-mail.

* Users are expecting purpose-based user interfaces for these multi-channel communications. Thus, IM clients are expected to include "click-to-communicate" functions for any combination of voice, or web, or video. Texting becomes the preferred communication mode (even over voice) for mobile device users. The concept of "calls" is overwhelmed by social networks like Twitter or Facebook.

* Business methods and business processes get reinvented both by individual behavior (e.g. preferences for presence and IM vs. calls) and by business or management design (web sites with text chat as an alternative to call center agents). Those are unmistakable and undeniable changes. Thus, it seems the first emphasis can, even should, be on the changes and new solutions coming from these innovations in communications. Those changes and solutions can then be grouped into categories and names can be applied, as appropriate. The growing library of Unified Communications case studies from all the leading communications vendors provide a lot of definition--context and boundaries--for UC, and the adjacent categories. Take a look.

For the time being, Gartner publishes magic quadrants both on Unified Communications and on Corporate Telephony. They also have reports on CEBP, collaboration, and contact centers, to underscore the differences.

Inclusion of any specific communication component or solution in any specific category is based on observing the results. I don't know anyone who would argue that a multi-button phone is a call center, though a multi-button phone might be used in a call center. So, why spend time debating whether a Bluetooth headset, for example, is unified communications or not? Just look at the results. So, to close by linking back to the title of this post, almost everyone I know, with their eyes closed, can catch a certain floral aroma and know that they are smelling a rose. Someone might claim they're smelling a camellia or a freesia, but the name wouldn't change the aroma--it would still be the smell of a rose. Smelled any good Unified Communications lately?