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The State of Unified Communications 2008

While we're still crunching the data, a few key trends have emerged. Some of these are not new. But our goal is to use the results of this benchmark to provide a timely reality on check on the present and future of unified communications in the enterprise.

First, the good news; enterprise IT executives ARE interested in UC. Most told us that they were paying careful attention to UC plans and initiatives from their communication and collaboration vendors. Vendor UC migration paths have emerged as a key buying criteria for those companies evaluating systems and solutions including IP telephony and instant messaging/presence.

For those moving forward with UC implementations, the momentum is behind integrating of various communications applications into a common desktop client as phase one, with additional plans to integrate UC systems with business processes down the road. We also found significant interest in delivering UC services to mobile workers to improve the ability of those using mobile devices such as BlackBerry, iPhone, or other smart phones to integrate into the UC architecture. What that means varies among organizations. Some simply want find-me-follow-me capabilities so that individuals can have a single in-bound number, with the ability to simultaneously ring multiple devices, or route calls based on user-defined preferences. Others want the ability to integrate presence into mobile devices so that someone watching a buddy list can see if a co-worker is using their mobile device as opposed to their desktop or soft phone.

UC confusion still remains, but the picture has gotten clearer over the last year. When we interviewed IT executives in early 2007 we found a lack of clarity over the definitions of unified communications and unified messaging. In fact, a large number of end-users who told us they were implementing unified communications last time around actually were implementing unified messaging (e.g. the integration of voice, fax, and e-mail such that any interface can be used to retrieve any type of message). This time we again asked participants how they defined UC. Respondents for the most part told us that UC to them was essentially the integration of multiple forms of communication services such as voice, video, instant messaging, and unified messaging around a set of common user interfaces. Some even mentioned the need to integrate real-time communications services with non-real time applications such as calendaring and shared workspace applications. Most expected their UC plans to incorporate collaborative applications such as voice, video, and web conferencing and eventually tie into SOA-based business process applications via web services interfaces or exposed APIs.

We also found a growing number of demonstrable business cases for UC adoption, especially around the use of video. Several participants told us how they were planning to increase their adoption of video conferencing and distribution capabilities to support applications such as distance learning, telemedicine, and improved customer service via kiosks.

We also gathered numerous examples of organizations that were using video to improve group collaboration. In a few examples, organizations were mandating the use of video to reduce the need for in-person travel, but the larger driver was to improve overall group meeting effectiveness. One participant told us they initially invested in high-definition video conferencing on the idea that they could cut quarterly in-person meetings down to once a year, but the team found video so useful that they began to have monthly video-based calls instead of just meeting every three months.

Despite these examples, the majority of participants are still struggling to develop business cases to justify large-scale investments in creating a completely integrated UC environment. They are more often than not looking to vendors, professional service organizations, analysts, and their peers to help them gain a better understanding of how UC can directly lead to either top line revenue growth or bottom line cost savings (or both).

As I mentioned in last month's post, interoperability continues to be the key concern of those planning UC strategies. Not just of the systems/applications/services themselves, but also for management. We talked to several organizations struggling to figure out how to integrate management of various UC applications into their overall network and application performance management strategies.

Over the next few weeks we'll dig deeper in to the data and put some hard numbers around some of the points I mentioned above. But the reality is clear: UC is on the minds of IT architects and managers, but moving from concept to implementation will require more time and effort.