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Unison: Too Good to be True?

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Rurik Bradbury, chief marketing officer at Unison Technologies. Founded about 3 years ago, Unison offers what it calls "a new approach to unified communications that combines e-mail, telephony, voicemail, instant messaging, calendars and more--all in one application." My initial reaction after meeting with Unison at VoiceCon and speaking them last month was, "Is this too good to be true and what am I missing?" I'm still trying to figure this out.Unison brings all communication into a single platform. Unison Server integrates an IP PBX that drives IP phones and other devices via a gateway. There are currently versions of the server software for Red Hat and Ubuntu. A version for Parallels Virtuozzo Containers enables companies to host multiple versions on a single box.

Features include:

* All email, IM, voice and calendar features in a single desktop client * Click on a person's name to call them * Complete communications history with each person * Voicemail arrives as an attachment * Real-time free/busy presence (see when your colleagues are available)--unified telephony and IM presence * Integration with the user's calendar * Auto attendant with custom phone trees and custom voices.

As a fully software-based system supporting 10-2,000 users per server, Unison is aimed at SMBs that need an IP PBX. It also provides basic contact center capabilities, and offers features such as call recording and skills-based and priority routing. Through open APIs to the PBX, developers can write telephony-enabled applications.

By now you're probably wondering, what's so different or special about this--lots of vendors have similar types of products or services. Here's the difference--Unison is a free service offering. There are two versions of Unison--a free, ad-supported version, and a $50/year version for people who don't want to deal with ads. This is a very disruptive business model, which significantly lowers the cost of ownership. The company is clearly targeting potential Microsoft Exchange users that prefer a lower-cost alternative for e-mail, telephony, voice-mail, IM and other communications and collaboration applications.

Free services can be very powerful, but Unison obviously has some hurdles to overcome, such as user awareness and skepticism (e.g., you get what you pay for). There are currently about 6,000 companies trialing the service, although with the ad-supported version the company can't identify the companies and specific users on the system. Also, there is no Mac client at this time. For the future, Unison will be working on integration with business processes and applications, starting with CRM integration. The company is also introducing Unison mobile with Active Sync integration.

When I met with the Unison folks and asked about the various features and capabilities offered, I was quite impressed--they offer all of the features one would expect in a basic UC/UM offering, plus more. While it's too soon to pass judgment on how well the company will do and how satisfied customers will be with both the free and low cost services, it's nice to have more options available to companies and employees that want to try out unified communications and see how they can benefit from it. And in today's economy, free is a good thing.