Two years ago, most people had never heard of unified communications. Today, as the combination of cost savings and productivity improvements that UC solutions can deliver has become clear, adoption of UC technologies and approaches has moved to the top of the list of IT priorities for many companies. Forrester Research recently found that more than four out of five enterprises in North America and Europe were deploying or piloting UC solutions.
As dramatic as this change has been, UC adoption is likely to be a process. It is no simple task for organizations to integrate email, IM, conferencing and voice on the desktop and mobile phone; embed communications within applications; and transition outdated PBX systems to software-powered voice solutions. However, it is said that humans overestimate what can be achieved in three years and underestimate what is achieved in 10 years; we believe this principle will apply to how UC will be broadly adopted.
Still, there will be significant advances in the year ahead. Here are the 10 big shifts I expect to see in 2009:
1. UC gets unified
The term "unified communications" has long been muddled and miss-used, and the problem is made worse by vendors who slap a "unified" label on products that are anything but. As the category matures, I predict UC will get unified. Analysts and associations will begin to hold vendors accountable for delivering true unified communications, which includes--at a minimum--a single identity with presence at the core, a single inbox, unified management, developer tools, and a unified user experience across voice, conferencing, instant messaging, and email.
2. UC gets softer
The past year has seen a remarkable amount of industry consolidation as network PBX vendors have acquired software companies that bring the expertise and assets they need to stay competitive. Although the realities of the current economic environment will slow the pace of consolidation, the rapid move away from hardware-based systems toward software-based platforms will accelerate in the new year.
3. UC goes everywhere
Increasingly, work is not confined to a single place. People need access to their workplace communications tools, wherever they happen to be and on whatever device they happen to be using. UC will increasingly span across the PC, browser, and mobile phone for truly integrated voice calling, email, IM, conferencing and presence on the go. Expect more of the UC features on your desktop to show up in your browser and on your mobile phone.
4. UC applications spread
The next wave of UC will bring communications capabilities directly into business applications of all kinds. With UC-enabled applications, communicating becomes a natural and intuitive part of the workflow integrated at the desktop, mobile phone or browser. Expect UC-enabled applications to spread into a wide array of industries and markets.
5. Unified conferencing emerges
In 2009, the distinction between audio conferencing, video conferencing, and Web conferencing will begin to fade and "unified conferencing" will emerge as a new standard. As audio, video, and Web conferencing merge into a single system, price points will fall to a level where comprehensive, unified conferencing is available to everyone in an organization.
6. Voice mail finds the inbox
While unified messaging has been available for years, its adoption in businesses has been limited, but that is about to change. Over the next three years, many corporations will reach the end of their voice mail maintenance contracts. Rather than renewing, look for businesses to move to unified email and voice mail systems as a proven way to reduce maintenance costs while increasing efficiencies. You can expect mainstream adoption of unified messaging over the next three years as a result.
7. UC goes to the cloud
The ability to use on-premises software with cloud-based services is changing the way IT departments deploy and manage their systems. Companies will begin to take advantage of this flexibility in UC as vendors offer increasingly capable UC suites in the cloud alongside on-premises software. The result will enable companies to focus their IT resources where they will deliver the greatest competitive advantage to their business while outsourcing other IT capabilities to a service provider, often at significant cost savings.
8. Consumer experiences begin to drive UC requirements
UC capabilities are becoming a regular part of people's daily lives, and these experiences--whether with presence through Live Messenger, desktop VoIP with Skype, visual voice mail with the iPhone, or mobile email with a Windows Mobile phone--are transforming expectations of corporate IT. Organizations will need to modernize their systems to deliver UC to their people in order to stay competitive and attract the best new employees.
9. Organizations evolve for UC
Delivering UC applications poses formidable challenges to the way many businesses are organized today, with separate fiefdoms for IT, telephony and sometimes networking. Given its cross-discipline nature, UC will drive internal organizational shifts that bring together disparate technology teams into centralized, unified groups that are better able to capitalize on the transformational capabilities UC can deliver.
10. UC adoption takes off
As IT budgets tighten in response to the current uncertain economic climate, UC looks more attractive than ever. The reason? UC provides immediate ROI by reducing travel costs, extending the life of existing investments, and improving productivity and collaboration. UC is one IT program that offers an immediate and clear case for businesses seeking to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of their people while controlling costs.
Many companies will find themselves at a communications crossroads in the next year. Do they invest in hardware-bound systems or make the move to software-based UC? Do they choose to put their applications in the cloud or on-premises--or do they choose the best of both? Do they hold tight to the legacy approach or invest now for savings and competitive advantage in the long run? Each organization will find its own right answer to these questions. The year ahead will be full of challenges and opportunities for us all, but it is undeniable that it is an exciting and interesting time to be in UC.
Gurdeep Singh Pall
Corporate Vice President