Commentary: There's a lot of Unifying left to do

Unified Communications is one of today's hottest buzzwords. But if you struggle to understand why, you're not alone, as Simon Sharwood suggests in this Commentary.

Unified Communications is hot, and rightly so. The idea of only having one handset and one phone number is a lovely scenario. Lovelier still is the idea of access to people and data anytime, anywhere, without having to worry about the many different connections we wrestle today. A single inbox for voice, data, email, text and even RSS would be lovely.

But the more we speak to people about Unified Communications, the more we are convinced it is a work in progress and that definitive solutions are a way off.

Take, for example, dual-mode phones capable of connecting to WiFi and GSM networks.

You can buy these phones today, but the industry admits that making them work is still a bit of a dark art.

Cisco and Dimension Data are trialling the phones because it's a very tricky job to get a call to hand over from WiFi to GSM. We've chatted to Commander about WiFi/GSM handover too, and its Managing Director Adrian Coote said "We have played around with it in some of our labs, but we do not believe it is ready for prime time."

There's consensus that carriers could be doing more to help seamless handover.

But of course carriers have no particular interest in making it possible for some portion of a call to take place on cheap, WiFi-borne VoIP. So they're not exactly rushing to help, nor are they big on the IP carriage that will make Unified Communications easier to achieve by letting business operate one style of connection.

Last week, for example, we spoke to Panasonic about its new IP-PBX. They sound like very capable machines. But the company has only two telcos lined up to provide IP carriage, meaning that users will need to run a PSTN and data connection to the outside world, complicating matters and, doubtless, making Unified Communications harder.

Nor are carriers rushing to help with well-priced mobile IP networks. Prices are coming down, to be sure. But some obscene tariffs remain in place - a gigabyte of SMS traffic, for example, is tolled more than $1 million! The VoIP-over-mobile we see is largely a back-door affair from the likes of Fring or Truphone, rather than a fully carrier-sanctioned offering. 3's Skype plans are the exception here.

But the biggest concern we have about Unified Communications is that, beyond the blue sky scenarios, we're yet to hear compelling new business cases that would make us feel that businesses really want or need it.

Field force empowerment and/or automation is nearly always the first business case mentioned, but frankly has been achievable since the days of trunked radio. Of course this style of solution is now more affordable, but is it a justification for Unified Communications? We think not.

Every vendor we speak to mentions presence as a huge bonus. We're not convinced by that either, seeing as our own experience of presence is that it lets people interrupt us with greater accuracy, instead of leaving voice mail.

Conferencing gets a mention early on, but that's scarcely a revolution given that phone conferences are cheap and easy. And despite the fact that passably effective videoconferencing has been with us for at least five years, new airlines keep taking to the air!

And while a single inbox sounds great, it's been doable without much work for ages. And who's bothered to do it?

The there's the ROI problem.

James Haensly, Vice President of Strategy for Avaya Asia Pacific this week told us that "mobile solutions will increase a spend so there needs to be big productivity offset."

But when we asked him how to make sure that unified communications will deliver that ROI, he said that, even taking into account the natural variance between industries there is no particular business case that can be confidently asserted as a surefire winner.

One thing he did advance, however, was the idea that Unified Communications will at least get your business into a state in which it can satisfy different types of users.

"A generation Y user may not use email but likes to use IM and Facebook," he said. ""Baby boomers who want to pick up the phone." Unified Communications infrastructure will let you satisfy both groups and everyone in-between.

Which brings us to the one of the few Unified Communications implementations that ever really excited us.

A while back, we chatted to a large telecoms equipment supplier that had acquired XBOXes for its conference rooms. For less than $100 a year, this gave the company unlimited, 24x7 voice chat between all of its Australian offices.

It also gave the staff something to do at the end of a hard day's work.

Now that's ROI!

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