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Monday, 29 October 2007

It's been a busy month...

October was a busy month for the IP telephony and UC community. It has been for me too, hence the lack of a blog since the beginning of the month. The key happenings were two trade shows - Convergence Summit South at Sandown, organised by my friends at Comms Business, and IP 07 at Earls Court, put on by the good folks at Imago. There were two other trade events organised by CRN and Comms Dealer but as I didn't attend either of those I can't comment on them.

The Convergence Summit South is a channel-focussed event held this year on October 9th and 10th. As well as an exhibition featuring equipment vendors and service providers looking for channel partners, there was also an educational seminar series. I was honoured to be asked to host two of the panel debates on Next Generation Networking and Unified Communications. The whole event, together with the gala dinner held on the Tuesday evening, was very well attended. This has, over the 6 or so years it has been run, become a 'must attend' channel event in the calendar. So much so that this year, for the first time, Comms Business ran a Northern event in Manchester's Deans Gate Hilton Hotel in early May. Another one is scheduled for May 2008, in the same place.

The week after the Summit, the end-users got a chance to catch up on what is happening in the IP world at IP 07 at Earls Court. Run by the same people who put on the VoIP for Business show in the spring, this event has the usual collection of manufacturers and service providers touting for business, but it has a more extensive seminar series than the summit, with 4 seminar theatres versus the two at Sandown. I wasn't speaking at any of the seminars this year, as I had a lot of meetings to attend with clients and other people.

Whilst at Earls Court I attended the official Microsoft UK launch of Office Communications Server 2007, their Office Roundtable video conferencing system (a cool bit of kit described in more detail in my August blog: see archives) and associated software. I have to say it was a bit of an anti-climax for me, but that is because Mark Deakin, Microsoft's UK product manager for their UC products, has very kindly acceded to my every demand for information on and demonstrations of his wares over the last few months, so I was somewhat ahead of the game.

Having said that, no one should underestimate the importance of the Microsoft launch. As can be seen in the reams of press and analyst articles, not to mention the countless blogs on the subject, the IPT and UC game has changed - and it will continue to change as Microsoft and other software vendors such as IBM and Oracle move into a market place traditionally dominated by the PABX companies and latterly disrupted by Cisco and other networking vendors moving into their space.

I have written an article for Comms Business on the coming battle for the IPT and UC markets which appeared in the on-line edition of Comms Business today. You can read it below. As it happens, I also spotted another article written by Lee Pinder of the Redmond Channel Partner Online which contains similar opinions to mine. Lee has the luxury of a 3000 word count for his article, though. My one, written and submitted before I saw his, is constrained by an 800 word limit! Oh well. You can see Lee's article here:


Here's the article I refer to above:

"Analysis: Convergence 3.0. The True ICT Age is Upon Us at Last

Maren Bennette of CQC Consulting says, if it weren’t the registered name of an obscure software package I‘m sure the vendors would have grabbed the term Convergence 3.0 for their marketing campaigns by now.

'I am getting tired of the expression Web 3.0 and its like, not least because it’s misleading: we’re on Web 7.0 by my count! But Convergence 3.0 would at least be a more accurate definition of where we are when it comes to bring computing and communications together. '

First the two ‘converged’ on digital electronics hardware, though of course they were separated by the user department responsible for the equipment and even by legislation: there were never any regulations about who could install a computer, unlike telecommunications devices.

A long while later voice, data and video network traffic converged. LAN switches, routers and gateways now all use IP to transport packets regardless of what those packets are filled with. A certain networking company called Cisco can claim the lion’s share of the kudos for this, though they were by no means the first to market with their products.

And now we are at the start of the third phase of convergence: when business and consumer applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, v-mail, IM, web collaboration and web pages will all have standards-based multi-modal text, voice and video communications capabilities embedded within them. All this ICT power will be available to the user on just one device if he or she so wishes. That’s what I mean by Convergence 3.0. And UC? Well, that’s the name the industry is giving it.

The Clash of the Titans: let battle commence.

This new age of information and communications technology is going to be a golden one, at least for some. Indeed it so rich in opportunity two companies have tried to monopolise the term ‘Unified Communications’: the aforementioned Cisco and software giant Microsoft. Both are after their ‘fair share’ of a market variously estimated between £17.5 and £23.5 billion, by 2010.

But there are rough times ahead for some vendors and by extension, their channel partners. Because of its complexity, because of the strategic importance of UC to the customer - if a unified communications system goes down, so does the company using it - and because of the sheer magnitude of the task of implementing it, UC will sort the wheat from the chaff like no other communications technology has done before. In three years time the ICT landscape will have changed dramatically with some major vendors and partners disappearing altogether and many others forced to change their business models almost beyond recognition.

Out of this maelstrom, it’s my opinion that Microsoft is best placed to become the leading UC vendor, with Cisco and others such as Avaya and Mitel playing a supporting role. On the channel side, I believe that the traditional resellers selling hardware, software and services will be marginalised. We are finally seeing the dawning of the age of the application service provider; be they traditional carriers, companies offering hosted IPT and UC, or maybe even vendors moving into the ‘communications software as a service’ space, such Cisco is doing with its Webex acquisition. This move to applications plays right to Microsoft’ strengths.

Am I biased?

You may be forming the opinion I am somewhat biased in favour of Microsoft here. Not so. I have never worked for them in any capacity and don’t hold any MSFT shares. The same can’t be said of Cisco, for which I worked for 10 years and whose stock I still own. So why is it that I think the Washington software company will ultimately win the unified communications war with the Californian networking giant and the other major communications vendors?

Well, it is simple. Whilst Cisco ‘owns’ the network and has a significant (but not overwhelming) share of the IP telephony market, it doesn’t ‘own’ the data centre or the desktop, as Microsoft does. Also, though Cisco has a very impressive quantity of partners in both its channel and ecosystem, Microsoft’s reseller and ISV base is almost ten times as large - which means a massive footprint of financially motivated companies pitching the Microsoft line.

Last but not least, Microsoft has managed to make most of its enemies into allies, albeit uneasy ones: every single major vendor of UC and IP telephony products including Alcatel-Lucent; Avaya; Cisco themselves; Ericsson; Mitel; NEC Phillips, Nortel (more than any other) and Siemens either has or is actively developing products that work with Microsoft UC products.

And by the way, those other companies all see Cisco as their major competitor and would happily help to pull them down. It’s hard to lose a war when even your competitors are actively supporting you against your main enemy. "

As always, your opinions and comments would be appreciated... even if you disagree with me.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Musings on UC

This is an article I wrote for the CMA's e-newsletter in mid September, published this week. I have made a few minor changes to make it suitable for this blog. Enjoy!

August is normally a somewhat languorous month in the calendar for most hi-tech markets: the users, channel partners, service providers and manufacturers are all away on holiday, so not much happens. But not this August, at least not in unified communications…

Here's what has been happening…

Mitel’s acquisition of Inter-tel.

There was a real edge-of-the-seat feel to the successful acquisition of Inter-tel by Mitel in mid August. After an attempt by Steve Mihaylo, founder and former CEO of Inter-tel, to counter bid for his old company came to naught, another share holder lawsuit to prevent the acquisition was denied and the deal went ahead. The significance for the UK telecommunications market is this: Mitel held a significant share of the IP telephony market in its own right, second only to Cisco in system shipments according to MZA. Inter-tel, whilst a relatively small player in its own name, also owned Lake, the Irish-based company that supplies BT with its Versatility ISDN phone system. When all the system shipments are added together, the newly enlarged Mitel is now the number 1 communications vendor in the country. That has to be good news for Sir Terry Matthews, Mitel’s founder and majority shareholder. And worrying news for the other vendors.

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant Report on Unified Communications.

There were ructions in the UC vendor community when Gartner, the respected information technology research and advisory company, issued its latest Magic Quadrant report on Unified Communications on August 20th. Some of the vendors, whose position in the quadrant had moved since the last report was issued a year before, felt that their capabilities were not fairly represented. Others thought that Microsoft’s position (up and to the right) was not warranted because the Redmond software giant’s UC offerings are new, and thus untried. All the manufacturers I have spoken to thought that Gartner was overly pessimistic in its market overview - but they would, wouldn’t they. Here is what Gartner wrote:

“Market Overview

The UC market and its technologies are maturing, but, overall, the market remains at an early stage of maturity, and the adoption of converged solutions remains slow. The slow adoption is the result of multiple technical and organisational issues, including:

· Some new technologies, such as presence, are not fully understood.

· Best practices around the use of UC are not well-defined or -developed.

· Many products are still at an early stage and lack functionality.

· Enterprises have large investments in existing communication infrastructures that must
be preserved; this lead to a slower evolutionary approach, rather than to the faster,
revolutionary "rip and replace" approach.

· Some applications and products can be complex to deploy.

· The business case frequently is based on a soft return on investment (ROI), such as
productivity improvements, rather than on hard ROIs, such as cost savings.

Gartner expects many barriers to slowly be resolved and that, in 2008, UC will enter an early mainstream adoption phase globally. UC offers multiple capabilities and is useful in different ways, depending on the function and users supported. Gartner research (see "Discovering the Value of Unified Communications") suggests that enterprises define their business cases depending on the problems and audiences addressed. Some UC investments are justified in personal-productivity improvements; other investments are geared toward workgroup improvements and should be justified at that level. Still other functions are geared toward broad enterprise workflow improvements and are justified at an enterprise-wide productivity level.

According to Gartner, UC solutions often appear to take one of three general approaches:

· One is to bundle most functionality tightly in a single solution; examples of this include
Nortel's Multimedia Communication Server (MCS) 5100, Siemens' OpenScape, and
Interactive Intelligence's Customer Interaction Center (CIC) products.

· A second approach is to take a broad portfolio of separate communication functions and
tie them together through shared services, such as presence, administration and
directories. Examples of this include Cisco and Microsoft solutions.

· A third approach is to offer a common communication framework, or middleware, that
can be used by unrelated communication applications. IBM and Oracle are taking this

Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. The bundled approach makes it easier to offer a solution at a departmental or workgroup level, and is useful for pilots and trials, because the overall expense and commitment is low. The broad, established-portfolio approach is useful to companies that already have a strong commitment to a vendor, because this approach enables infrastructure investments to be leveraged. Finally, the framework approach is particularly effective when building a communication solution that fits into a broader Web-services or business-application environment.

Another important distinction among vendor solutions is the extent to which they are open to standards and to integration with third-party communication products. Some solutions are intended primarily to enhance and operate on their own IP-PBX or presence environments. Others clearly are intended to interoperate in multiple environments. Some solutions, such as those from AVST, are designed specifically as part of a broader portfolio.

'There is no single-best approach, and no one vendor offers everything an enterprise needs for communications. Companies must make decisions by evaluating the emerging options based on current needs and how these options fit with the business' longer-term strategies. Because most enterprises will end up with communication solutions from multiple vendors, enterprises should ensure that the different products can interoperate,” said Steve Blood, research vice-president at Gartner.'"

My opinion is that ICT managers that can perceive a possible benefit to their users should deploy one or two pilot UC systems, perhaps from their computer and telecoms vendor, and see for themselves if the cost and complexity of a full roll-out will be justified by the improvement in productivity mooted as the primary reason for adoption of unified communications. That way the customer can judge for themselves the product and professional service capabilities of the potential vendor and their channel partners before committing themselves.

IBM sets out its stall in the unified communications market place.

Three days after Gartner issued its UC report, the VoiceCon show in San Francisco was the setting for IBM’s launch of its unified communications offerings. To be fair, the IT company has had a UC offering for some time, as CMA members who attended the UC Forum day last December and the Focus day in April will know: Stewart Wilkinson, IBM’s UC man in the UK presented their vision at both events, and made it clear that this is a strategic market sector for the company.

It was the purchase of Lotus in 1995 which has led to IBM making a foray into the burgeoning unified communications market with its flagship product, Lotus Sametime, launched in the late 90’s. This product was one of the very first UC applications designed for enterprise deployments, though it wasn’t marketed as such at the time. There are now approximately 17 million users world-wide, according to IBM.

To take advantage of the tsunami of UC marketing IBM has come up with the trademarked term ‘UC²’ which stands for Unified Communications and Collaboration. Lotus Sametime is at the heart of this UC strategy.

Sametime is an enterprise instant messaging and web conferencing application. It provides enterprise instant messaging functionality, presence information, and web conferencing. It offers strong support for communications standards and standard protocols, including Session Initiation Protocol, SIMPLE, T.120 and H.323. Lotus Sametime also integrates with Lotus Notes, IBM’s Outlook competitor.

IBM has also been busy building an ecosystem for its unified communications offering. Like Microsoft, Big Blue has entered into strategic alliances with most of the traditional and newer PABX vendors, including 3Com, Alcatel Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens. These companies offer the call control and handsets needed to round out the offering.

Most recently, at the VoiceCon show in San Francisco in August, IBM announced Sametime Unified Telephony and an even closer relationship with Siemens in which the German vendor’s OpenScape UC interoperability with other PABXs will be bundled into Lotus Sametime. Whilst not as far reaching as Microsoft’s relationship with Nortel in the Innovative Communications Alliance, the strategic relationship with Siemens is indicative of the way the ICT companies are going to come together to offer full UC capabilities.

IBM also has been busy in the acquisition business, most recently acquiring WebDialogs, giving IBM an important entrĂ©e into the services side of web conferencing, which puts them head-to-head with Cisco’s WebEx acquisition earlier this year, and of course, Microsoft’s LiveMeeting.

Note: I have written a feature article for Comms Business on IBM and Oracle. It should appear in the November edition.

And here’s what’s going to happen soon…

The big upcoming event is the long awaited launch of Microsoft’s Office Communications Server 2007 and related products. The UK launch is expected to take place on October 16th at the IP 07 show at Earl’s Court. Bill Gates will make a virtual appearance courtesy of the wonders of video conferencing and local experts will be on hand to demonstrate the product and answer questions.

I also expect that the other vendors won’t hold their peace whilst Microsoft steals the show. Look for UC announcements from most of the major vendors around about the same time.

Best regards,