UC:Unified Communications, Yeah Right

by Dave Michels


I have seen a number of columns and posts lately centering around the definition of Unified Communications. While what the term means is somewhat nebulous, it is clear that everyone needs it and every major PBX manufacturer seems to offer it. It reminds me of the all important Thneed. (A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need – Lorax/Seuss).

7 years ago, all the buzz in VoIP was about “Unified Messaging”. It was the killer VoIP app – quite simply because it wasn’t possible unless your telecom system had an IP capability. Today, everyone offers Unified Messaging” (even I daresay digital systems), so it no longer has buzz appeal. Instead, we now offer “Unified Communications”. It is our modern day technological thneed:

It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat.

But it has OTHER uses. Yes, far beyond that.

You can use it for carpets. For pillows! For sheets!

Or curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!”

Perhaps we need to give it the respect of a little more clarity. For one thing for certain, is it isn’t cheap. Let’s start with a little history.

Ever see the movie “Play it Again, Sam”? – Dick, a character in this 1972 movie, demonstrates an early version of Unified Communications. In all of his scenes, Dick goes to a phone and notifies his “service” of his current location and number. Dick even tells his “service” where he is heading and when they could reach him there. Why does Dick do this? Because he wants to be reachable – he wants his calls and his messages to find him wherever he may be. Despite the primitive technology (a time before cell phones or pagers) Dick was able to make and receive his calls and messages at any place at any time.

Fast forward 37 years, and Unified Communications has become a bit more complex. Did I say 37 years, yikes! The answering service went away with voice mail. Pay phones were replaced with cell phones and cell phones brought with them SMS and another voice mail. The PC was invented and with it came ubiquitous Email which has recently morphed into PC/Email/Skype/Twitter/Calendar/IM/Presence communication streams. Before you know it we have a diversified communications nightmare. How do I communicate with poor Dick that his girl is being stolen by a Bogey wannabe?

Having multiple message stores is complicated. My boxes and streams keep increasing. So the need for Unified Communications becomes pretty clear. The UC solution and its components are not clear as no vendor is able to address all of our communication streams. Nor is it clear we want all of communication steams to be unified, or exactly where to unify them. The PC folks think UC starts with Active Directory, the PBX heads like the idea of the phone and voice mail being the center of the universe, and of course the cell carriers love the idea of the cell phone being the center of our UC world. I reluctantly agree that the cell phone carriers are probably going to win this one out – mobility seems to be the killer requirement and most UC components increase the value of the mobile phone.

But we keep adding and changing our communication streams. I used to love Skype and used it all the time. I just recently realized it hasn’t been installed on this laptop for quite some time. I am resisting Facebook, but I don’t think I am going to win, it seems to be taking over. Will I need a Facebook App soon? Phone only or PC too? The idea of SMS was to be useful on any cell phone, but yesterday an iPhone user said to me he thought the 140 character limit was dumb since “everyone” has data phones now. SMS dead? Oops, Google just added it to their Gmail desktop, alive and well in a new place. Yes, we can get things to work technically, I can read Twitter (for example) on my phone, but I have no desire to read the links to articles that people tweeted from my phone.

There is a lot of pain associated with managing all of our communication streams. I spent all day yesterday in a meeting, checking my phone (and associated apps) – but somehow still managed the Ill Gov Senate scandal. Where there is pain, there is a sales opportunity. What you need is a Thneed, um, oops, I mean Unified Communications. But the fact that the definition is inconsistent, and the technologies and requirements are rapidly changing, suggests to me the solution isn’t “Unified Communications”, but Improved Disparate Communications.

The fact is, we interact and achieve significantly different results with our communication streams based on our device, time, and place. I do prefer to download/play my voice messages on my cell phone’s mail interface over making a cell call to the voice mail system – but I am not ready to make a Skype call over my cell phone’s data network. At least not yet, give me a Nokia N97 and a 4G network, I’ll be making Skype video calls from it.