Unified Communications: Worth the Hassle? by Steven Vonder Haar

Inertia can be a powerful, powerful force.

Once people have a system that works, you have to give them a mighty good reason to go through the hassle of change just for some marginal, incremental gain.

Many families will stick with the same grocery store year after year, for instance, simply because they know where they can always find the pancake syrup. Likewise, companies will buy from the same suppliers all the time – out of habit if nothing else.

So imagine the plight of Cisco Systems and a raft of other technology vendors out there trying to sell the world on the virtues of that emerging set of capabilities known as “unified communications.”

I don’t know about you, but the communications systems I have work very fine, thank you very much. I can send and receive e-mails. My phone rings when people call me. When necessary, I can hop online for a collaborative Web conference.

Indeed, to many casual observers, the idea of “unified communications” appears to be a bit of overkill. Maybe it’s even seen as an attempt to fix something that’s not even broken.

Even with these considerations, though, others may see value in being able to consolidate a range of communications capabilities in a single place. The notion that all incoming and outgoing communications could somehow be funneled through a single interface is an appealing concept.

But, at the end of the day, is unified communications really worth the hassle? Put yourself in the shoes of a corporate IT manager deciding on the future of corporate communications solutions. Does it really make sense to junk existing telephone systems and online conferencing services simply for the sake of creating a unified communications environment?

The answer, of course, is a big, fat “No.” Such a solution merely re-packages features and functionality already available to end users. With such a unified communications solution, companies would merely be paying thousands –and perhaps millions – of dollars to re-create communications capabilities that already are at their disposal.

In short, business users need some reason for pulling the trigger on investing in unified communications – a valid rationale for making the investments of both IT budget and training resources that can prompt a wider corporate embrace of unified communications solutions.

In this debate, it’s video that stands as a crucial linchpin in shaping the future of the market. Of particular importance are solutions that make it easier for executives to create, manage, and distribute video from the corporate desktop.

Video can provide the technical “sizzle” that encourages executive decision makers to take a second look at unified communications alternatives. And, in many cases, the elements that wrap around video can be parlayed in other forms of Web-based communications. The audio from a video feed, for instance, can take the place of a traditional telephone call. The PowerPoint slides presented alongside a video stream can form the foundation of an online collaborative event.

And, if video is integrated properly into a true unified communications solution, its impact will extend far beyond the prospects of technology vendors trying to sell the next great communications platform. It also will have huge impact on the people who produce and develop high-quality video content.

That’s because video deployed within a unified communications solution will fill a variety of roles in the corporate environment.

Naturally, it should be expected that a viable unified communications solution will excel at enabling live, two-way video enriched communications events. But this is not the only viable video application.

Advanced unified communications solutions will make it easier, for instance, to share professionally produced corporate videos both in live meetings and in time-shifted environments. Essentially, executives will have libraries of product videos and other video content that can be retrieved and shared at the click of a button.

As it becomes easier for executives to share these videos, it will become increasingly valuable for their organizations to invest in the development of professional videos that cast their company in the best possible light.

And that day of broader video enrichment via unified communications deployment may not be quite as far off some might think. Already, we’re seeing business deployment of some rudimentary platforms that begin to integrate multiple communications technologies under a single user interface.

To grab a glimpse at prospective demand for unified communications in the business sector, Interactive Media Strategies asked in a survey of 1,003 executives conducted in the fourth quarter of 2009 about the implementation of platforms that combine two or more Web communications solutions in a single user application.

Such a description encompasses everything from the types of all-encompassing elaborate solutions described above that make all Web communications capabilities available in an on-screen application to more “simple” unified communications solutions that combine a handful of communications capabilities, such as merging instant messaging into an online Web conferencing tool.

Using this description, 15% of all respondents to the Interactive Media Strategies survey report that their organization has already deployed some form of “unified communications” solution. Another 27% cite plans to deploy unified communications in 2010 with another 25% reporting “interest” in implementing unified communications capabilities.

And, as a group, these organizations that are most engaged with today’s mostly limited forms of unified communications have high regard for the role of video in day-to-day business. Nine out of 10 respondents in the survey citing plans or interest in unified communications, for instance, agree with the statement that their organization should use video more extensively in order to streamline business operations.

The basic message here is not to turn a deaf ear when executives start talking about the prospects for unified communications. The adoption of unified solutions invariably will translate into more rapid implementation of a range of video-enriched communications capabilities. And that, in turn, will translate into fresh opportunities for selling more robust video production technology and services.

A unified communications marketplace at rest is likely to stay at rest unless acted upon by video. But if this logjam of inertia is broken, it would create significant new opportunities for the production and distribution of business video.

Steven Vonder Haar is Research Director at Interactive Media Strategies and can be reached at Svonder@InteractiveMediaStrategies.com

The AVNetwork staff are storytellers focused on the professional audiovisual and technology industry. Their mission is to keep readers up-to-date on the latest AV/IT industry and product news, emerging trends, and inspiring installations.