Microsoft Canada publishes a newsletter called Canadian Connections, and covers topics related to enterprise communications.
They were nice enough to ask me to write an article on Unified Communications for the Winter 2007 issue, which has just come out, and is posted on Microsoft Canada's website.
Below is the full text of my article - your comments are welcome!
A Word from... J Arnold & Associates
By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates
Unified Communications - Choosing the Right Approach
From an analyst�s perspective, the term �convergence� resonates on many levels, and can be the starting point for a lengthy discussion. We all have a basic notion of what convergence means, and I want to begin by saying that this is a hot topic today because it finally has relevance for all elements of the value chain.
Convergence first became important to network operators, as it allowed them to simplify their infrastructure and reduce operational expenditure and maintenance costs. It has become important to enterprises for the same reasons, but also to reduce communications costs and to make employees more productive. For the end users at their desks, convergence manifests itself in the form of a richer communications environment, which is commonly referred to as unified communications. And finally, convergence is important for vendors, as it creates exciting opportunities for innovation.
The idea of convergence is especially timely now, as it builds on VoIP, which is gaining critical mass in the enterprise market. Initially, the adoption of VoIP was tied to IP telephony and PBX replacement, which is largely a voice-centric solution. On its own, VoIP does little more than replicate the PBX experience with less cost, and enterprises have been deploying this cautiously. Over the course of 2006, various unified communications platforms have come to market, promising a higher level of integration of voice, data, and in some cases, video.
These platforms offer a stronger value proposition than IP telephony, and are giving enterprises good reason to think more strategically about IP technology and making investments in convergence. Unified communications solutions have been evolving for some time, and are now ready to deliver business-grade services that enterprises can no longer ignore. For this reason, we expect that 2007 will be a breakthrough year for convergence. As enterprises learn more about what unified communications platforms can deliver, there will be a stronger business case for network convergence than what IP telephony alone could justify.
A fundamental driver for convergence and unified communications platforms is the fact that today�s technology has actually made communications more complex and not easier. We have too many ways of reaching people and ways of being reached, and the net result is that people spend more time managing their communications tools than actually communicating with each other. Not to mention mobility, which frees us from our desks, but adds another layer of complexity in managing the communication process.
Unified communications goes a long way to making us more effective at keeping in touch. IP networks make this possible, especially with advances in SIP � Session Initiation Protocol � which enables presence and supports real time, multimedia communications. For the end user, this means new capabilities such as click-to-call from Outlook, or setting up web conferencing on the fly for collaboration. Building on this is Fixed-Mobile Convergence (FMC), which extends the desktop telephony experience to mobile devices. These are just a few capabilities and applications that provide real value to enterprises, and we really are just at the beginning of what is possible.
With all this promise, enterprises need to make some careful decisions about how to pursue a convergence strategy. Since the second half of 2006, major vendors have come to market with unified communications platforms from both the software and hardware worlds. These represent two distinct models, and enterprises will need to choose the one that best fits their needs.
The software-based approach is founded on the thinking that the PC is the center of the employee�s workspace, and that it is the preferred interface for communication. This would be Microsoft�s position, and given their market dominance, adding unified communications is a logical extension of their existing operating system. It should be easy to deploy in the network, and being software-based, is a cost-effective solution. Their Exchange Server supports major PBX vendors such as Nortel, Siemens and Avaya, so it can be readily deployed by a large segment of the enterprise market.
Conversely, a hardware-based solution is built around the view that voice is not just another PC application, and that unified communications is best delivered over a network that is tightly integrated from the switch out to the desktop. For vendors such as Cisco and Avaya, a software solution alone cannot provide the full end-to-end convergence experience. The PC is an important endpoint for supporting unified communications, but for these vendors, the PBX or IP PBX still has a pivotal role to play. Furthermore, their solutions are not tied solely to Microsoft, and could support enterprises using other software platforms.
This is just a cursory view of these two models, but the underlying contrast is the main message. Enterprises will need to understand how each would impact their existing networks and what the implementation scenarios would be. Both approaches have merit, and each will deliver unified communications to varying degrees. To a large extent, we believe the choice will be a philosophical one. For enterprises that view the PC as the ultimate nexus of the desktop, the software model will likely prevail. Conversely, those with more conventional views on technology and communications will probably be more comfortable with the hardware-based model.
For either to be successful, however, we believe there is a bigger challenge. Despite the fact that these platforms can deliver a host of new features and productivity improvements, enterprises still need to be convinced that unified communications really is new and improved. The ROI and TCO justifications are difficult to demonstrate, and enterprises will need to hear a stronger story. This applies to all the players involved � vendors, service providers, systems integrators and Value-Added Resellers (VARs).
Enterprises need to clearly understand how convergence and unified communications will not only deliver tangible benefits, but also be a strategic investment that makes them more competitive. This is a lofty promise, and it remains to be seen who can do a better job articulating this vision. There is a lot at stake here, and both hardware and software vendors need to work closely with their channel partners to drive these messages home with the enterprise market. Going into 2007, the major players have their solutions ready for market, and we should start seeing evidence fairly soon as to which vision of new and improved is gaining the most acceptance.
Jon Arnold is Principal of Toronto-based J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications. Previously, he was the VoIP Program Leader at Frost & Sullivan, where he was responsible for managing their subscription service for Global VoIP Equipment Markets. For more information, contact Jon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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