Unified communications and the year ahead

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While SA is still a year-and-a-half away from mainstream adoption of unified communications (UC), 2012 will see CIOs defining their UC strategies.

This is according to Wayne Speechly, communications services executive at Internet Solutions, who adds that 2012 will see an acceleration of VOIP uptake and that fragmented UC will start to take shape as sellable products.

Meanwhile, Roman Hogh, head of technology, strategy and development at MWeb Business, believes that UC in its classic form started to derail last year, and that this trend will continue in 2012.

Mapping out the path using building blocks

Speechly says that UC is not about a simple product, but rather is a journey that enables a company's communications strategy.

According to Speechly, this year, CIOs are probably going to define their UC strategies. He says this means “taking audit of where they are at present and where they see their organisation needing to move to, and what that time period is”. As a result, he says, there will be an increase in the implementation of the fundamental building blocks of UC.

Speechly adds that this year will see an acceleration of VOIP uptake. He says converged voice is a key component of UC, but many organisations in SA do not have VOIP.

“It is very difficult to have a conversation around what you want your unified communications capability to be if you haven't started with fundamental building blocks like VOIP,” he says.

Shaping sellable products

From a market point of view, Speechly says there were fragmented messages about UC offerings last year. He explains that UC was a bit of a vapourware concept. However, according to him, this year, those offerings will start to take shape as sellable products in the market.

Speechly explains that many UC technologies have existed in component form for many years. However, he points out that the way these technologies are being packaged is changing.

Bennie Langenhoven, managing executive at Tellumat Communications Solutions, says some key areas to look out for regarding UC include cloud, video, social media and mobile devices.

Hybrid UC clouds

Langenhoven believes there will be more talk about UC in the cloud this year, and some vendors will start pushing it harder.

However, he says it will be a while before notable take-up of UC in the cloud, because while it is easy to host UC in the cloud, the business case and the go-to-market models are not mature enough. The cost and availability of bandwidth is also a major hurdle for hosted voice and UC, says Langenhoven. Furthermore, he says, because voice services are typically highly critical to organisations, companies are reluctant to host their voice servers off-site.

For these reasons, Langenhoven says hybrid developments, where part of the solution is hosted on-site and part in a data centre, may take effect. “This type of model could be very cost-effective in organisations where they have a large head office, some regional offices and a larger number of very small branch offices,” he says.

Integrating UC and social communication

According to Langenhoven, this year, social media will become more tightly integrated into UC. He says people will be able to communicate and collaborate using UC directly out of social media applications.

Langenhoven also says sharing information, conducting meetings, and the way in which people communicate will be affected by, and tightly integrated with, social media.

Fixed mobile conversion

Because of the significant impact mobile devices have had on people's daily lives, there is no choice but to integrate these very tightly with UC, notes Langenhoven.

He says that fixed mobile conversion will play a very important role in the evolution of UC over the next couple of years. “Already we have the ability to manage our presence on our mobile devices, and switch from desk phone to mobile client over WiFi, to GSM, without having to terminate the conversation,” he points out.

End of traditional?

Hogh says the proliferation of mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, in the workplace gives workers a wide choice of compelling communications apps and systems. “Many of these are best-of-breed, offering innovations not seen before, and usually at a fraction of the cost of traditional unified communications systems,” he adds.

“This raises the question: does the effort, time and expense of traditional bespoke or highly customised/integrated UC systems make sense in the modern app/cloud-centric business world?”

“With smartphones and tablets starting to play a commanding role in business communication, the point of unification is shifting from a single common app to a diversity of apps loosely integrated around mobile operating systems like iOS and Android,” he notes.

He adds that the devices running these apps tend to be worker-owned, posing challenges for IT departments in terms of conformance and governance. However, he says the trend appears to be unstoppable, making it advisable for companies to embrace and learn to work with it, rather than resist it.

Upsurge in video

Langenhoven points out that the use of video is increasing in personal and business use. He says businesses are using professional video conferencing facilities to communicate between branches as well as with customers and suppliers. Moreover, he says, video conferencing capabilities are increasingly being integrated into UC solutions. For example, peer-to-peer video can be used from laptops or mobile devices, he points out.

Langenhoven argues that video will become increasingly common in everyday use and can be combined with desktop sharing and instant messaging. “Applications like Skype and mobile devices have certainly contributed to this trend by making users more used to video,” he concludes.

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