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UC in Prehistoric Times

I hope everyone will spend a few minutes to read the new No Jitter feature story on Unified Communications (UC) by E. Brent Kelly. As soon as I saw that he also views UC as a concept, not a product, I knew I would enjoy my read. I would, however, amend his opening sentence to state that the UC era probably dawned in the mid 1980s, not mid 1990s. Perhaps Brent doesn't remember, or is too young to remember, the first wave of integrated voice/data terminals from a quarter century ago. The unification of mixed media communications dates back to prehistoric times, when PCs were running on DOS and the weight of a cell phone was expressed in pounds, not ounces.The beginning years of the digital PBX era brought with it the promise of integrated voice/data communications, and more than a few of the leading system suppliers got carried away with the integration concept. Rolm, the North American grandfather of today's Siemens Enterprise Communications, in the late 1970s introduced an integrated electronic messaging option, Rolm Electronic Messaging System (REMS), to run on the backup processing unit of its MCBX offering. A major problem was that REMS would not be available when the redundant processor was needed (which was often). REMS died a slow and quiet death.

I was at AT&T during the development of System 85, the first digital PBX from the geniuses of Bell Labs (introduced almost eight years after other digital systems first hit the market), and I could barely comprehend some of the product's many application options, such as Electronic Document Communications (A UNIX-based communicating word processing solution priced far above the going rate for a Wang or IBM solution) and Energy Management System (an automated power management system designed to replace offerings from Honeywell or Johnson Controls). And does anyone remember that the original NEC NEAX2400 was introduced with several peripheral minicomputer options, including Text Mail Module?

There was also a lot happening at the desktop during the early 1980s. Integrated voice/data terminals had their day in the spotlight: Northern Telecom introduced DisplayPhone, AT&T its touchscreen 510 BCT, and Rolm hit the trifecta with Cypress, Juniper, and Cedar workstations. The Cypress was without doubt the best of the lot, designed with an integrated Applications Programming Interface (API) years before CTI. When Northern Telecom debuted its Meridian brand at a big bash announcement party at the Laguna Niel Ritz Carlton in 1985 it included the 4000 voice/data workstation, perhaps the biggest (in terms of footprint) desktop terminal ever to work behind a PBX system; the workstation even made attendant consoles of the era look small. Start-up ventures also joined the fray for new voice/data desktop terminals, such as Sydis, whose VoiceStation was the best in class on paper (but didn't quite work that well). Market research reports by such well known companies as Frost & Sullivan predicted big things for Integrated Voice/Data Terminal (IVDT) products. According the so-called experts, every executive and white collar professional would have one on their desk by 1990. Obviously, early enthusiasm for the product was misplaced and the forecasts were slightly optimistic (by about 100%).

Integrated voice/data communications and processing in the 1980s was not as complex or comprehensive as current offerings, but it was a time when the roots of UC can be discovered. Even IP telephony can be dated back to the early 1980s when engineers at the Xerox Palto Alto Research Center (PARC) announced plans to transmit voice over its Ethernet system (still based on a coaxial cable backbone). Wang, once a power in the office automation market, countered with its plans to develop WangBand, connecting telephones to a broadband LAN using frequency agile modems. Not only is WangBand long forgotten, but so is Wang.

Concepts are often easy to conceptualize, but bringing things to the level of marketplace reality takes time and effort. UC products and applications will eventually be commonplace, but it will take more time and energy than many industry analysts would like for you to believe. Brent's article brings some much needed reality to the UC discussion.