It’s A Paradox, You See


Unified Communications, or UC, is creating an ingenious paradox for the traditional PBX makers.

Oh the Irony of it all. I got my Telecommunications degree from the University of Colorado (UC), talk about being ahead of one’s time. I should tell people I have a UC degree. Unfortunately, the University of Colorado is actually abbreviated CU. But as some guy once said, What is in a name?

The PBX is an odd name and one that may not survive. PBX stands for Private Branch Exchange – which is teschnospeak for a non-carrier phone system. The industry has never really embraced this name. From the get go, the manufacturers often refuse to refer to their products as a PBX. The simple upgrade was PABX (adding automated). More recent derivatives include the NBX, the Intergrated Call Processor, Call manager, and Office Communications Server (some do use PBX). For the past 40 years or so, it didn’t really matter what they called their product, the telecommunications industry knew it was a PBX. But that is changing now.

Every major PBX vendor over the past decade has transformed into a software company. I believe each of them is now spending far more on software development than hardware development. Microsoft is working hard to distinguish their OCS/UC solution as a “software only” solution, but the fact is just because Microsoft only make software doesn’t make their solution require any less hardware than the traditional solutions. This is important because it is a major part of their pitch – all on premise VoIP solutions require core processing hardware, LAN switches and routers, backups, UPS, cooling, and yes phones or softphones – whether it all as the same logo or not.

A most ingenious paradox!
We’ve quips and quibbles heard in flocks,
But none to beat this paradox!
— Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan

UC though does represent a unique paradox for the traditional PBX makers. You see, the telecommunications industry is now all about UC (unified communications). It’s an interesting but important distinction that is occurring. This is not just another round of not calling the phone system a PBX. It actually represents a major disadvantage to the PBX makers even though they are willingly flying the UC banner over their product lines.

You See, UC is a slippery term. It was the major theme of Voicecon – prevalent in every booth, session, and keynote. But exactly what is it varies among the presenters. Some vendors position UC around features such as unified messaging, presence, mobility, collaboration, etc. Others feel it is more of an architecture – effortless communications from any device any location. While the various offerings are quite impressive – none of them really offer a complete solution. For example, one nice feature I would like in a UC solution is a single call log for all in/out/missed calls regardless if it was a cell, desk, click to dial, or voice mail call. Maybe someday.

One thing that stands out as a clear requirement of UC is presence. It is touted as a productivity enhancer – only call people when you know they are available. This is the root of the paradox for the PBX makers. The problem is today’s phone is not a good indicator of presence. Off-hook means present and unavailable, but what does on-hook mean? The fact the phone is not in use does not indicate we are available or even present. So instead we resort to the desktop device which typically determines presence based on keystroke activity. There are a couple of major flaws with this logic, but we will get to those later. But if you accept this logic, that availability is best determined by desktop activity, the PBX makers must now use the desktop as a critical part of their UC solution.

The first generation of presence based solutions (and still readily available) from PBX makers involved new clients specifically for their hardware solution. This is a bad idea. It meant PBX makers need to create desktop clients and support them on multiple platforms. Expensive, and very limiting to the customer as this PBX software won’t integrate with other apps or sites using different hardware. Some vendors offered JAVA or web based ICQ solutions which are cheaper to make, but difficult to integrate to outside services and applications. Plus the whole situation is getting annoying – between Skype, Yahoo, AOL, Google, and now OC/OCS I’ve got way too many chat engines available to get excited about adding another one associated with my PBX or voice mail system.

Based on my observations at Voicecon – it would appear the different manufacturers have agreed to let Microsoft’s Office Communicator client for OCS win – at least in the enterprise space. Nearly every major manufacturer offered integration with Office Communicator or OCS in their demonstrations. Office Communicator is the client intended for Office Communications Server which provides presence and IM. It nicely integrates throughout the Office suite, so status can automatically change based on Outlook’s calendar. Also presence information is available in all Office Applications (a green dot for availability could appear on the From line in an email if the sender is available or next to a name typed in a Word document – complete with click to dial and IM). With integration into OCS, for example, my status automatically changes to “on a call” when I pick up my handset. Tying into Office Communicator solves the UC/presence problem for the PBX makers except for one minor problem – Microsoft’s OCS is also positioned as a complete PBX replacement (just add sip trunks, soft or SIP phones and Exchange as a voice mail replacement). To address UC, the PBX makers are effectively forced to celebrate the implementation of a direct replacement technology. The name change from ‘Telecom solutions’ to ‘UC solutions’ exacerbates the problem – PBX makers are well positioned for telecom solutions, but if you want UC look somewhere else. “A most ingenious paradox”.

To review this logic, it was 1) UC is what People Want, 2) UC includes Presence, 3) Office Communicator is the best Presence solution (Sametime is also very impressive). I actually really like Office Communicator and have been using it on both my cell phone and PC for several years. But I think there is a flaw in assuming desktop usage determines availability. In fact, one of my favorite times to chat is when I am driving. I do agree with Microsoft that the IP desk phone is a bit of a waste (see Stupid Phones), but don’t agree that more stupid SIP based phones is the solution. For example, wouldn’t a motion sensor on the phone be more useful to determine presence than keyboard activity? In fact, a motion sensor could not only do that, but also reduce phone power when no one is around to save energy. The motion sensor could even be a camera suitable for pictures or video. The traditional PBX makers can really change the game if they would consider making their phones more useful – I’ve said it before and will keep saying it, but an always-on connected IP device should be the most powerful thing on the desktop for an enterprise. The industry has changed the game to one of software, but the PBX makers should leverage their strength around hardware – just as Apple as done to Microsoft so many times.

The whole notion that presence is so critical to UC is also questionable. A true UC solution will tightly integrate with the mobile phone – and with cell phones the concept of proximity based presence is meaningless since we tend to carry the phone around. I am available in the car and I am not available when I am in a conference room – both situations I am typically away from my desktop and with my cell phone. Not to mention the countless times I am not available when at my desktop. Keyboard activity on the desktop is a decent indicator of presence today, but I think it can be dramatically improved. We need to change the game.

This is partly why I am not a big fan of the nebulous term “UC”. Telecommunication solutions have always been about improving communications, improving business processes, and delivering an ROI. None of these concepts are new. What is new is the multiple communication streams we manage – IM, Email, Desk Phone, Cell Phone, Twitter, Voice Mail, and more – a powerful unified solution makes sense. Just the base fact that the solution requires cellular, equipment, phones, and desktops would strongly suggest it isn’t going to be a single vendor solution, nor should it be.

That’s my opinion, and remember, I have a UC CU degree.


Dave Michels