As the second quarter approaches, it's already clear 2010 will be remembered as the year unified communications services made it big -- and the year Cisco Systems and Microsoft tussled for dominance in these solutions.
It's been some time coming. Players from the PC era such as Microsoft and Cisco have been pushing hard into unified communications -- also known as UC -- for years. So is Avaya, which is trying to parlay its telecommunications know-how into solutions that run telephony as well as email, chat and collaboration on PCs and IP networking infrastructure.
"There definitely is a new battle for the desktop brewing," says Dave Casey, principal of Westron Communications, a network integration company in Carrollton, Texas, that is so optimistic about UC that it is refocusing most of its services to focus on supporting these solutions. Core components of those solutions include presence, instant messaging, voice services, videoconferencing, fax and unified messaging.
"You may want to take advantage of some of these or all of these or just a couple of these, depending on your model, but the idea is that you should approach this in a cohesive way," Casey says.
PC, telecom giants duke it out in unified communications services
Cisco and Microsoft are just two big players making a strong case for unified communications. IT solution providers say it's too early to count out IBM, with its SameTime suite of UC applications and the Lotus Foundations appliance; ShoreTel, an IP telephony equipment provider that integrates tightly with Microsoft Office Communicator; and legacy player Avaya, which just introduced Avaya IP Office 6, a new version of its UC technology designed specifically for small businesses.
Bill Yassinger, solution manager for advanced network architectures with Datalink, a data center solutions and services company in Chanhassen, Minn., says UC adoption is fueled by business mandates for mobility and around-the-clock availability. His company is pushing forward with the Cisco UC solution and believes companies supporting 500 to 2,000 handsets are really the sweet spot for sales.
"To some degree, Microsoft is a competitive solution," Yassinger says. "On the other hand, it is complementary and will augment the solution you will pick."
Derek Downs, vice president for Houston-based INX, says that while Cisco provides the broadest UC platform play, customer adoption will be driven by business processes and workflows. So, while businesses may adopt its underlying UC foundation technologies, they will look for ways to integrate with the core Microsoft Office suite as well as enterprise applications from SAP and Oracle, to name just a few. "There is a coexistence that will need to happen," Downs says. "The directory will drive this."
VARs must sell value-add apps, not just PC telephony
Indeed, solution providers say positioning unified communications services as a simple replacement for dial-tone services isn't the formula for winning deals. Rather, the technology's ability to seamlessly integrate diverse communications methods into core business processes and existing enterprise applications is critical.
"Business analysis is really part of the decision," says Downs. "A lot of the workflow things are starting to drive adoption."
Downs cites the example of a new hospital account that could not cost-justify a UC investment just six months ago -- although the IT team was sold, the accounting department refused to sign off. The INX team re-approached the prospect more recently, but this time, it came armed with information about how the technology could help cut 30 minutes off the time it took for the hospital's clinical team to move heart-attack patients from the emergency room into surgery. That reduction, in turn, increased the reimbursable amount that could be requested by the billing department.
"Suddenly, it became very easy to justify because it became a business case, rather than just a return on investment," Downs says.
According to a recent poll about UC of 915 IT professionals by CDW, more than 67% of businesses are preparing a business case or strategic plan for unified communications services. Of the small number of organizations that have fully implemented UC (only 8 percent of respondents), 71 percent report that the return on investment (ROI) met or exceeded expectations.
The top three benefits of UC, according to the survey were:
- Operating cost reduction (54 percent)
- Increased productivity (50 percent)
- More reliable communication (44 percent)
Rory Sanchez, president of SL Powers, a managed services provider in West Palm Beach, Fla., says more businesses are embracing unified communications services because they want to create "maximum stickiness" with clients, business partners and employees. "You want to allow your clients to communicate with you in whatever way you communicate," he says. Among SL Powers' clients, as an example, instant messaging is becoming much more widely adopted.
Charles Macli, executive vice president of sales and marketing for IVCi, a provider of videoconferencing solutions and services in Hauppauge, N.Y., says solution providers should not underestimate the emotional component involved in closing UC and collaboration sales, especially as more businesses incorporate remote employees into their workforce.
There are some conversations that simply are better suited to video than nonvisual communications methods, Macli says, such as performance reviews or contract negotiations. "You can hold people's attention longer," he says. "It all comes down to the effect you want to have."