Merging Voice, E-Mail and More

Every day, employees are bombarded by an avalanche of messages: voice mail items on their desktop and mobile phones, notes on their pagers, e-mail, a fax or two, and perhaps just a number of sticky notes taped to their computer screens. At the same time, because of recent technical advances, users are pressured to respond to these messages ASAP: Being unable to reply because one is traveling or out of the office for a meeting, for example, is simply no longer acceptable.

Unified communications systems, which have been available in different iterations for several years, hold the promise of making this process easier, and a growing number of firms are taking advantage of it. That’s because these systems have the potential to funnel messages from a variety of devices into a common place, so users can sort through them more simply and respond to those with highest priority first.

In addition to helping individuals sift through messages, these products are designed to ease IT staffs’ maintenance chores. Different communications applications rely on a common directory, which can be overseen by one, rather than multiple, messaging management tools.

While the technology has potential, so far its adoption rate has been slow. “Unified communications has been viewed as a nice-to-have rather than a must-have application,” said Ronald Gruia, a program leader at market research firm Frost & Sullivan Inc.

Perception Vs. Reality

Several factors have contributed to the disconnect between unified communications hype and user interest. Unified communications systems may sound simple to deliver, but in reality they require a significant amount of integration. In most cases, data from different messaging systems sits in individual silos, which were not designed to exchange information with other systems.

Also, because information resides in different applications, unified communications systems need to deliver data to a variety of different devices that were not designed to work with one another. These applications have to be flexible enough to deliver information via a telephone user interface on a handset; a graphical user interface on a desktop computer, or a Web browser on a laptop. Another challenge is that the information has to be transformed as it moves from place to place. These products need voice-processing features to translate an e-mail memo into a voice mail message, and speech recognition software to transform a voice mail message into a text message.

Compounding the problem, unified communications vendors have been aiming at a moving target. “The growing importance of items like instant messaging has made it important that these systems support real time communications,” stated David Ferris, president of market research firm Ferris Research Inc.

Lately, customers have asked that unified communications systems be integrated with desktop applications like calendaring systems, so calls and messages can be managed based on user availability, which is shown on their schedules.

Identifying the Cornerstone

Few vendors have all of the pieces in place, but many have products with a wide range of capabilities. As these products evolve, the question is, which application (instant messaging, e-mail, or voice mail) will emerge as the focal point for the unified communications?

Frost & Sullivan’s Gruia told TechNewsWorld he believes that voice mail is the most likely contender. “The logical place for users to look for all of their messages would be in their voice mail boxes,” he said.

In addition to integration challenges, cost been a problem. To date, unified communications systems have been expensive, costing several hundred dollars per user. “There has been a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to cost,” Gruia said. “Sales have been low, so the prices have been high, and the prices have been high because the sales have been low.”

Companies have also had difficulty justifying these purchases. “It’s great that executives can store all of their messages in one place, but companies have struggled to determine the impact of that ability on the bottom line,” Ferris told TechNewsWorld.

Easing Integration Concerns

There are signs of progress, however. Growing acceptance of VoIP is helping unified communications suppliers. “We have found that close to nine out of every ten companies is at least looking into deploying VoIP and a growing number are moving ahead with trails to test its functionality,” noted Zeus Kerravala, vice president at market researcher The Yankee Group.

Whenever a company moves to VoIP, its voice and data systems run from a common network protocol, IP, and many times a common application development environment: Increasingly these systems are being designed to work with XML.

Additionally, a number of VoIP PBX vendors are delivering their systems with the unified communications installed but turned off. This makes it easier for resellers and users to get the software up and running once they decide to deploy it.

As a result, use of unified communications has been growing: Frost & Sullivan found that worldwide unified communications revenue increased from US$197 million in 2003 to approximately $250 million in 2004. While that bodes well for vendors, they may want to rethink their long-term strategies.

“Eventually, I expect unified communications will be bundled in as part of other applications, like sales force automation,” concluded Frost & Sullivan’s Gruia. “In that case, it becomes much easier for a company to make a business case for taking advantage of the technology than it does when unified communications is offered as a stand-alone application.”

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