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The growing role of cloud in unified communications

By Rob Bamforth

As communications systems evolved from the analogue, 'plain old telephone system' (POTS) into the digital world we were promised 'pretty awesome new stuff' (PANS), and part of that was 'unified communications' (UC). The reality has been somewhat harder to deliver, so why have communications proved so difficult to unify?

Well, what is it that makes UC tick and how does it really add value to an organisation? - is it everything being over IP (XoIP), shared presence showing who is available, lower networking costs, high definition video or the presence of the 800 pound gorilla, Microsoft's, logo next to Lync? (or now, with a rather more confused brand image, 'Skype for Business')

Probably none of the above.

Industry giants like Microsoft, and to a lesser extent Cisco, have each given the emerging UC market a major boost or two in their time, and there are a plethora of players from digital media-driven UC specialists to purveyors of PBXs with a telecoms legacy all addressing the market with worthy solutions. Integrators have gamely endeavoured to stick together these many disparate platforms and the frenzied staccato of messages from social platforms have all been embraced.

Yet still it all feels less than fully 'unified' communications from the individual's perspective, and this is critical, not only because good communication infrastructure is important to any organisation, but because getting real value from communications hinges on the attitudes of the individual. Communication can be described as "raising the level of mutual understanding" and no matter what tools are used, it is people that make it happen.

And where is it that the people are? They are 'mobile' and they have their own preferences.

In the early years of UC the emphasis was on unifying networks - the plumbing - and hence why many early adopters were being sold to on the premise of communication unification, but actually bought in to free phone calls over IP. Not that there was anything wrong with that in principal, but it really did not get far enough into where the real value was being pitched - getting disparate people to work better together, in true collaboration.

Mobile devices started to be added into the UC mix as additional end-points in UC solutions to redirect calls to, but this missed the point by again focusing on the technology, not the person. It is the people who are mobile and although the first mobile communications device was a phone, individuals now use a multiplicity of devices and media to communicate; some personally owned, some corporately supplied, some large, some small, some formal, some social.

Unifying all this is a bigger problem than fixing the plumbing or the endpoint, and it is not solved by appending the word 'collaboration' onto the end of 'unified communications' either.

The solution ultimately lies in the cloud and allowing people to chose what device and media works best for them.

Instead of convergence in the wiring, PBX or end-user device, the integration of communications services needs to take place in shared infrastructure, just like it did with the plain old telephone system.

There has been a surge in unified communications solutions delivered as a service (UCaaS), with companies such as 8x8, RingCentral, ShoreTel and Mitel leading the charge. It might only be a quarter to a third of the total market, but this is the area that is growing the fastest.

Rapid growth in adoption tends to indicate that individuals are comfortable and like it, and the key to this for communications is ubiquity - the IT industry's adaptation of the Martini principal - anyone, anytime, anywhere on anything. If those involved can continue to focus on the user and the user experience, through delivering control and access to all from of communication in a consistent manner across all devices and seamlessly incorporating real-time services like video and telephony, for example through universal browser-based technology (WebRTC), then the next stage in the evolution of unified communications could finally be delivering pretty awesome new stuff.

Get it simple, useful and effective for the individual to chose what they use 'everywhere' and they will deliver the long-awaited benefits of closer, co-operative working that help make their employing organisation more efficient and productive.