The Essential Guide to Unified Communications

Updated: April 30, 2009

The concept behind UC (unified communications) is fairly simple: reduce the "human latency" in business communications. That means eliminating time lost trying to locate the person with whom you want to communicate, figuring out how to communicate and waiting for a response. An astonishing amount of time is lost to human latency, up to an hour per business day. UC can reduce that wasted time and improve productivity .

Universal Inbox

At its simplest, UC combines voice and data traffic on a single network . This enables things like IP telephony, text-to-speech and speech-to-text communications. One inbox can hold your phone messages, email , faxes and all other communications. You can either read or listen to them, which is great if you happen to be at your desktop PC where your inbox is.

But people are mobile , and they're spending less and less time at their desks. The greatest latency in business communications is in locating the person with whom you wish to communicate.

The Concept of Presence

What's needed is a way to find people on the network . This is where active directories come in. They enable you to click on a contact and learn where he or she is in the context of the network: at a desktop node, traveling with a cell phone, walking down the hall with a PDA and so on. If you know where on the network a person is, then you know what sort of communication is possible. The network, equipped with the right UC technology, can translate one communication medium into another.

Even if a person does not have immediate access to a communications device, that information is useful, too. If you know that you cannot communicate with a person at this very moment, you can leave a message or seek someone else.

Presence enables the more convenient scheduling of virtual meetings and the use of appropriate communications tools for the meeting. Depending on the media available to each participant, a meeting may be conducted via voice, text or collaboration software.

Unifying Applications and Communication

Often, it's not enough to say, "You have a customer on line one." UC enables the forwarding of information about a caller along with the call itself, and it launches an application that can display that information in a useful form. So a call-center agent who receives a transferred call also automatically sees the customer's service history, too. A call or instant message about the budget can be accompanied by the relevant spreadsheet. The unification of communication and applications saves time spent opening applications locally and hunting for the relevant information.

Unified Communications Vendors

A number of IT-industry heavyweights are deploying new UC solutions. They broadly break down into two camps: the hardware solutions and the software solutions .

Microsoft Corp . and IBM Corp . are tackling UC from a software perspective. In October, 2007, Microsoft released its Office Communications Server 2007 product. OCS 2007 integrates telephony management, voice messaging, email and instant messaging. It also plugs into Microsoft applications such as Outlook and Exchange. At the same time, the company launched a new version of its Live Meeting video conferencing software, and the RoundTable 360-degree video conferencing camera. A Forrester Research Inc . study commissioned by Microsoft found that typical customers could save $5 for every $1 spent on Microsoft's software, provided they adopt all the company's technology and switches from traditional to Internet-based calling.

IBM's UC solution is an extensive family of software products under the Lotus Sametime brand. Sametime is a collection of collaboration products providing real-time presence, communication, screen-sharing capabilities and IP audio and video services. Sametime developer kits enable third-party developers to come up with their own applications for embedding Web conferencing, chat and other collaborative communications applications into business applications.

IBM is also pursuing partnerships with hardware vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc ., Nortel Networks , Ericsson Inc ., NEC Corp . and smaller players in the UC infrastructure industry. These players provide the nuts and bolts that convert voice and audio communications from analog to digital data, as well as the network infrastructure to move it around an organization.

UC saves time and makes a business more agile. It can simplify infrastructure management by converging all types of communication onto a single network. The technology is complex and new, but it is catching on rapidly among businesses of all sizes.

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