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UC Continues to Shake Things Up

Is UC a disruptor? I've heard many folks argue that it isn't, that it "merely" brings together familiar communications technologies and apps-presence, IM, conferencing, video, voice and messaging--that until now have been neither unified nor leverageable. And while that argument has merit, it ignores at least three areas in which UC either has or soon will be a game-changer.The first and most obvious has been within the vendor community. UC has become the entry vehicle for Microsoft, IBM and HP to move into enterprise communications even as it has helped Cisco strengthen its grip. Avaya, Mitel, Aastra, NEC and Siemens have seized upon UC as a way to reinvent themselves, and to show both current and prospective customers a migration path, while companies like ShoreTel and Interactive Intelligence are riding their UC portfolios into bigger and more lucrative slices of the market.

This market make-over didn't start with UC; it has been going on since the late '90s as the vision of IP replacing TDM began to become realized. But UC has caused the pace of change to increase, and the vendor landscape is fundamentally different in 2010 than it was just two or three years ago. More shake-ups are likely as M&A continues, as new entrants emerge and some current players continue to fade.

A second disruptive impact is just beginning to emerge, and that's in how UC is changing how enterprise communications architectures are perceived, conceived, deployed and managed.

In a recent post on No Jitter, Sorrel Slaymaker maintains that "A UC strategy is not just adding another technology. A UC strategy embeds communication technology into every business process, coordinating the right people and adding the appropriate contextual information...." He goes to say, "IT should create a Communications Architecture discipline that integrates all communication for a consistent, relevant, efficient, and effective communication experience. Unified Communications is not a technology, but a solution that integrates human interaction with enterprise IT systems."

Slaymaker's phrase, "....a solution that integrates human interaction with enterprise IT systems" is worth focusing on. On the one hand, it's hardly a new concept. Humans interact with databases and all manner of other IT systems, and it we have all been interacting with messaging systems for many years. But what UC offers is the opportunity to integrate communications capabilities into the very core of business processes and apps, enabling tasks and operations to be more quickly and cheaply performed by the right person at the right time.

It would be foolish to argue that communications has somehow been isolated from the core of how enterprises operate. Enabling people to share, collaborate and become true colleagues has been a fundamental mission of communications since A.G. Bell first told Watson to "come here, I need you." Communications and the technologies that enable it have been the life's blood of enterprises--and societies--for more than a century.

That said, UC provides the means for communications to trigger and facilitate machine-to-machine and machine-to-people interactions in new ways. Presence and IM can be used to assemble the appropriate resources to address a business opportunity, problem or crisis, and those individuals can meet via video, web- or audio conference, running across either wired or wireless facilities.

The sheer scope of the affected elements and the opportunity to integrate communications into apps and processes requires a new way of thinking about communications architectures--its purpose, scope and the metrics by which it is evaluated. We'll be following this issue closely on No Jitter and on the Enterprise Connect (formerly VoiceCon) websites, as well as in future editions of this newsletter.

Given the two areas where UC is already proving disruptive, it's not hard to guess the identity of the third: The vendors' delivery systems--the channel, internal sales teams and everyone else who works directly with customers on everything from RFP preparation to after-sale service and support.

About a week ago, Blair Pleasant reported on the challenges facing the vendors and their channel partners relative to UC. The fundamental challenge is familiar; Pleasant wrote, "CEBP solutions greatly lengthen the sales cycle and require sales tools and skills that they [the channel]...may be lacking. UC requires a consultative selling approach, rather than the traditional "box selling" model that VARs and resellers have built their businesses on, and it is difficult for many of them to make the transition to solution selling."

While the channel's struggle with this problem goes back to the early days of CTI, the stakes today are vastly higher. The vendors who are struggling to keep - forget about gaining--market share won't make it without productive channels of sales, distribution and after-sale service and support. And as enterprises redefine their approach to designing communications architectures, the pressures on the channel to deliver ever-broadening expertise and solutions will only grow.

So, is UC a disruptor? You bet and, as the old saying goes, you ain't seen nothin' yet.