Definition of Unified Communications, Its Features and Benefits
By Rick McCharles on April 16, 2008 11:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) Listen to this article. Powered by Odiogo.com
What is Unified Communications? Ask that question to 50 different people and without a doubt you will get 50 different and diverging replies. Even among industry professionals, hardware and software vendors, and industry analysts there is no consensus on definition. When asked, many in the business will begin to discuss UC's features and its benefits as opposed to defining what UC actually is.
In my continuing attempts to provide some clarity for my clients and to hopefully achieve some level of industry consensus, I offer the following:
Let's start with dispelling some misconceptions. Unified Communications is NOT:
- SIP or SIP Trunking
- Unified Messaging
- Fixed to Mobile Convergence
- IP Telephony
- IP Phones
- Analogue phones
- Instant Messaging
- An Icon That Display Availability Status
Some, or all of the items in the list, might be part of a unified communications architecture, but none of them define UC. To say for example, that Unified Messaging defines UC would be as silly as defining IT Architecture as storage, or computers, or a network. Information Technology is not so easily defined, and neither is Unified Communications. Which brings me to my definition for UC. I entered this definition in Wikipedia several months ago and so far it's holding (the rest of the Wikipedia entry on the subject needs a makeover).
Definition of Unified Communications
An evolving communications technology architecture which automates and unifies all forms of human and device communications in context, and with a common experience. Its purpose is to optimize business processes and enhance human communications by reducing latency, managing flows, and eliminating device and media dependencies.
I appreciate that a five word definition would be easier to remember but it would not be accurate nor would it do UC justice with respect to its features and benefits. So while the definition is a little wordy, it conveys the complexity and tremendous benefits of UC which I hope to articulate as I dissect the definition in what follows:
UC didn't begin with the emergence of the term a couple of years ago. UC has been evolving for many years. In fact, many of the concepts and functionality associated with UC such as simultaneous ring existed even before IP began to impact voice communications. Presence, a core and important component of a UC Architecture was part of some very early IP Telephony systems and has been around even longer in the form of Online / Offline Buddy status of Instant Messaging applications. UC will continue to increase its business value and enhance communications of all forms as it continues to evolve.
UC is made up of multiple components. The applications, enablers and functionality listed earlier such as IP Telephony, Unified Messaging and Instant Messaging may all be parts of UC system. It also has an underlying design, purpose and structure; all of which in part, validate the architecture label.
At the heart of UC is of course its unifying characteristics. A Unified Communications Architecture has the ability to unify communications of all forms including applications, machines and devices, voice, video, text, languages, as well as the old and the new. More details follow on the unification attributes and benefits.
UC brings context into the world of communications. Context can be in a form that is already familiar to us such as "who's calling" with Caller ID. But UC can also provide context in other forms such as:
- What are you doing now? Communications is tailored according to your activities. For example, you may choose a small specific list of individuals that are allowed to contact you when your scheduling application detects that you are in a meeting.
- The device that you're using or the device in use by the person you are contacting. For example, the system could convert your text message to a voice message if the person you are calling, is currently using a voice device not capable of accepting text messages.
- Intelligent context-driven menus that provide prompts that are relevant to the device and in context with the communications event. For example when placing a voice call, the system could present the user with the option of leaving a text message instead of a voice message if the call is not answered.
Optimize Business Processes
In business, technology's purpose is to solve business problems. UC's ability to integrate communications with business applications, processes and workflows has the potential of producing tremendous business value. A well designed UC architecture can:
- Enable communications, in whatever form is appropriate, between different applications, applications and people, and just about any type of device or sensor you can imagine.
- Reduce human latency issues by automatically initiating communications whenever a workflow is stalled as it awaits human intervention or action.
While still in its early stages UC, through the use of standard protocols such as SIP, SIMPLE, SOAP and XML, is slowly being integrated into business applications such as CRM, ERP and HR. A basic integration example would be a supply-chain application that upon detecting an impeding inventory shortage, would automatically schedule and then initiate a conference call with all of the parties required to solve the problem.
For business, these integration capabilities are UC's most compelling benefits. For that reason, many CIO's and IT Directors are now incorporating UC into their long term IT strategy.
Enhance Human Communications
Imagine a future where you don't give a second thought about where the person you are attempting to contact might be, what communication device they are able (or prefer to use), and where phone numbers are irrelevant.
UC is about communications, not technology and devices. And for humans it promises to simplify the way in which we communicate. While still evolving UC will allow communications to become less device dependent and more people centric.
UC is moving towards a future where people will have a single identify (their name: not a phone number) across all communication devices and applications.
UC can empower users by giving them a great deal of granular control over why, when, and where they choose to communicate and with whom. For example a Doctor could elect to only allow certain individuals to contact her on weekends and perhaps refuse all calls while in the operating room.
UC can also bridge demographic gaps based on age, culture and language. One of many examples is where an interpreting application converts from one language to another in real time. That may sound like the stuff of Star Trek, but that kind of functionality is being built into systems today.
Reduce Latency & Manage Flows
Latency reduction was discussed earlier in the context of business processes. But UC can reduce latency in other ways. For example, First Contact Resolution refers to the ability of a UC system to establish a communications session with the first available person based on role or expertise.
UC can also seamlessly manage media and communication modes. An IM session that segues into a telephone conversation and then later into a multi party video conference would be one example.
Simultaneous and Sequential Ring is a common feature and significant benefit of UC where the system rings multiple devices and automatically detects which device answers the call and establishes the communications path.
Eliminate Media & Device Dependencies
One of the benefits of UC is that it has the potential of abstracting away the device and technology characteristics of how we communicate. Why should a user be concerned about which device the party being contacted is using? After all, the caller is attempting to call a person, not a device. Let the UC system take care of figuring out the mechanisms by which the called party will be notified of the call request.
You may have noticed that, when describing UC's features and benefits, that I qualify many of my statements with "potential, may, can, promises, etc". I temper the potential benefits because while many of the features and benefits are available today, many more are still evolving. More importantly, business requirements must be well understood and a Unified Communications Architecture must be intelligently designed and implemented in order to realize and maximize its potential benefits.
There's a lot of hype and confusion about Unified Communications. I am passionate about the industry, the innovation that will result, its potential to enhance the way we communicate and its business value. However, its important to separate hype from reality and to establish some level of consensus on what defines Unified Communications. I hope this article has helped in that regard.
Unified Communications Practice Principal
RIC Services, Toronto, Ontario Canada