We are at the dawn of the era of Unified Communications.  How will we look back on this era in the future?

I think it will be much like Charles Dickens described his era in “A Tale of Two Cities”,

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

What were the best of times? That is easy, the dramatic improvements possible by improving employee and business productivity.  Just like in medicine, some of the greatest benefits have come from some of the seemingly most innocuous advances. In medicine, the great leap forward was the advent of penicillin.  In our industry my favorite is mobility, getting voice and emails from my cell phone.  While the primary product we offer is typically called messaging the term itself is actually legacy and anachronism. What we offer is powerful routing capabilities and an integration of voice, email and fax and the ability to send that information anywhere.

What were the worst of times?  This is easy too, the endless hype and drivel surrounding UC, especially when it comes to how easy it is deploy, which it isn’t! There is also a lot of hyperventilating about the vast improvements that are about to unfold.  I have seen similar initiatives since I entered this industry in 1981.  When I started by career at Illinois Bell my initial group of customers still had cord boards which were actually very effective.   

Now even Microsoft is entering the fray claiming the advantages of software based model of communications and UC.  Mitel and Northern Telecom introduced software controlled phone systems 30+ years ago.  Most of the telecommunications industry consists of software based systems and off the shelf hardware (even though it is still usually bundled because there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out).

It will be interesting to see how long it takes Microsoft to really get such an ambitious project right. Their core expertise is in Operating Systems, XP was introduced in 2001 and it has been 8 years to introduce a new operating system that people want. One of the biggest problems in technology is in understanding what customers want.

One of the reasons that my old customers hated to get rid of their cord boards was that there was a light associated with the ringing of the phone. Call it a busy lamp field or MWI (message waiting indicators), people love their lights and don’t want to give them up. Microsoft is still trying to convince people that they don’t need MWI, good luck.

In Microsoft’s PC centered view of the universe the PC is the center of voice. Do users really want their voice mail messages played back through PC speakers in open cubicle environment?  Privacy issues, HIPAA, student confidentially and plain common sense are just some of the reason that this is just not realistic. One recent early adopter of Microsoft’s UC technology (one of their strategic partners) just had to go out and buy headsets so that employee could listen to their messages. I bet a line item of $50 to $150 for computer headsets never entered into the cost justification model.

We have a number of customers that have set up task forces to see what their users want from UC. The usual outcome has been that customers do not know what technology is capable, their needs are diverse, and that radically new technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, Second Life, Google, “the Cloud” and now even SAP appear at a dizzying rate.  Which ones will have a revolutionary impact?  If I was able to answer that I would have been long retired at this point. One thing is for sure. The only logical business strategy is to make sure that would ever you buy it is flexible and will interoperate with other vendors.

Even the promises of UC may not actually materialize. As noted industry analyst Alan Sulkin points out in a recent article, Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) held out similar promises as UC back in the early-mid 1990s. There were a plethora of tradeshows, magazines analysts and consultants that were all branded CTI but somehow it all just faded away. Microsoft was a player then too with the advent of Telephony Applications Programming Interface (TAPI). Is Microsoft too big to fail at something?