There have been lots of discussions in the blogosphere lately about unified communications and the role of the PBX (or IP PBX). While we've made some progress in defining unified communications (UC), there's still controversy about what constitutes a UC solution.
UC is not a single product but rather a solution made up of a variety of communication tools and components. UC components include:
- Call control and multimodal communications
- Instant messaging
- Unified messaging
- Speech access and personal assistant
- Conferencing -- audio, Web and video
- Collaboration tools
- Business process integration (BPI)
- Software to enable business process integration
The various components -- unified messaging, conferencing, collaboration, IM, real-time communications or call control, mobility, and so on -- are all enablers or elements of UC, but they are not UC in and of themselves. Does a UC solution have to include all of these components? And how many elements must be implemented in order for something to be considered UC?
The key question is: When does something become UC rather than an element or component of UC? There's no single answer to this, and the answers will vary depending on whom you talk to. PBX/IP PBX vendors will claim that some sort of PBX or IP PBX is needed for a UC solution, while mobility vendors will claim that mobile capabilities are required. So what's the correct answer?
In my recently published market study, Unified Communications Market 2007-2012, I state that in order for a system to be considered a UC solution, several things must be present:
- Integration with voice capabilities providing functions such as click-to-call or click-to-conference. The voice capabilities can be peer-to-peer or traditional telephony, but the call control or telephony element must be integrated.
- Presence is the cornerstone of UC, and a UC solution must have presence capabilities, generally via a presence server. Presence capabilities can refer not only to IM or online presence but to telephony presence as well, indicating whether someone is on-hook or off-hook. In mobile applications, presence may be based on the mobile device being turned on or off.
- A unified user interface, or a UC client, providing a way for the user to access the UC capabilities -- from the desktop, mobile device, Web portal, business process application, and so on.
Not all of the other components, such as messaging or conferencing/collaboration, need be present. In fact, just the opposite is true. UC solutions should allow companies to pick and choose the components and capabilities they want and turn on the licenses as needed – whether for the entire enterprise or on a user-by-user basis. Someone who doesn't need messaging or conferencing should not have to pay for it. But he can still have a UC solution.
And what about the IP PBX? Voice is a critical element of UC, but voice (or telephony or call control) capabilities are not necessarily dependent on a PBX. Microsoft has shown with its Office Communications Server (OCS) that call control and telephony functionality can be provided without a PBX. (OK, OCS doesn't have all of the PBX functionality most of us have grown to know and love, but there are certainly companies out there using OCS Enterprise Voice without a PBX.) Also, we're seeing service-oriented architectures (SOAs) gaining ground, and in some cases, telephony can be provided using call control services, rather than a PBX.
I believe that the three elements – presence, user interface, and integration with voice capabilities – are the only requisite components of a UC solution, but the other components provide a more full-featured solution. We'll dive deeper into these elements in upcoming articles.