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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,


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