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The Problem with Collaboration and Unified Communications

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Unified communications, or “UC,” has proven to be a tough market to track, and the proposed replacement moniker collaboration will be just as tough. The problem is simply that so many different products, applications and services can claim to provide unified communications or collaboration.

Business phone systems provide unified communications. So do cloud-based services; soft switches embedded in carrier networks. Audio conferencing and videoconferencing, consumer VoIP services, email, instant messaging, mobility, text messaging and voicemail services also are building blocks or examples of UC or collaboration solutions. Others might argue that UC and collaboration are, or ought to be, features of applications businesses, consumers and organizations use.

Beyond that, both collaboration and UC are intermediate, process-related goals; means, not organizational ends.

Even in the tough 2008 to 2009 economic climate, 37 percent of organizations surveyed in late 2008 said they would be implementing some sort of UC initiative in 2009. But that’s an illustration of the problem: lots of different initiatives can be considered part of a UC initiative.

UC was a notable absent In Gartner’s top 10 strategic technologies for 2010. For years, the idea of a common platform for seemingly all communications seemed bewildering to enterprise information architects, says. Cisco CEO John Chambers has noted in the past.

ABI Research, for its part, notes that unified communications, merging IP telephony, conferencing and collaboration, messaging and other forms of integrated information exchange, are on a major enterprise adoption wave. According to a new ABI Research study, the market’s size was just $302 million in 2008, but will rise quickly to nearly $4.2 billion in 2014.

“Companies have been buying only those component technologies that they think will deliver immediate value,” ABI Research practice director Stan Schatt, said. “It’s only later that they start tying it all together as true unified communications.”

And that’s the problem; no matter what term we use to describe enterprise communications. There are lots of different elements and solutions. They are not all logically part of the natural technology supplier markets. At one level, observers can say business phone systems, hosted conferencing services and Skype are all part of one market.

At a more concrete level, suppliers and users do not think so. There may be value in grouping together at a high level all manner of products, applications and services, each with different business models and features, to estimate enterprise or small business communications spending, for example.

But very few suppliers sell products on such an undifferentiated basis. Phone systems are one product, hosted VoIP services are another. A firm might sell both products, but primarily because they are seen as substitutes for each other. Both provide UC or collaboration value for users. But neither are generally understood to be “telepresence” systems. Nor is the audio conferencing services market considered to be the same thing as the equivalent function provided by a phone switch.

Collaboration might in some ways be a better term than unified communications for any number of reasons. Changing the terminology will not, however, diminish the complexity of the broader market, or the difficulty of figuring out how fast each of the constituent parts is growing. UC and collaboration are broad organizational processes, less a distinct supplier market.

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