Unified Communications is the next big thing, right?

Unified Communications has been a buzzword for as long as anyone can remember. Is this its breakout year?

I have been in the technology sector for 18 years. I think I first heard about Unified Communications about 15 years ago. Since then it has been the dog that did not bark. But it’s so great, right? How can that be and could now finally be its big moment?

A bit more than business chat

Well, first, let’s look at what all the fuss is about. What is the promise of UC? Well, as everything in technology, this is a moving target but starting at the beginning, UC started out, in a nutshell, as not much more than voicemail in your email. Chat applications soon followed and then basic presence. Then Voice-over-IP started to get a look in and things really started to look like they might happen.

In the early days these systems were mostly bolt-ons to your phone system from the like of Avaya and Nortel and let’s face it, they weren’t much good. The software was always a bit half-baked. The sound quality was unreliable, the interfaces tended to be pretty basic and the tools for managing the endpoint software on any kind of scale was all but absent. But hey, if you leave enterprise collaboration and comms to companies that were still knocking out 100s of thousands of TDM extensions and ISDN interfaces every year, and to whom computers were something of a novelty, what do you expect?

Along came Microsoft

Enter Microsoft. In retrospect what Microsoft did in 2005 with and later in 2007 with Office Communications Server was really underestimated at the time. A lot of people sneered at Microsoft trying to make a proper go of putting together a communications server, especially as the voice market was still utterly dominated by incumbents and no one really believed that OCS was really going to go anywhere other than the graveyard for hubristic Microsoft projects like Zune and Windows Mobile. But quietly Microsoft were laying the groundwork for a truly momentous assault on the world of comms. No really.

OK so let’s not forget Cisco. Call Manager was also a pretty break-out product. Here was a (pretty conservative) network vendor doing voice, in their own inimitable completely standards-deaf-blind, proprietary way. But in the world of comms, it turns out that playing nicely with others matters a fair bit, and Cisco’s “our way or the highway” approach to life limited just how much that platform could do, especially in an increasingly interconnected, app-driven, mobile/cloud first world. So while it definitely carved out a good solid niche in enterprises with an attentive Cisco rep, it was never going to, and sure enough failed to really change anything.

So 2010 came and so did Microsoft Lync 2010 Server. Was anyone using UC yet, in any real numbers? Not so much. Sure the connectivity was getting there to allow for some pretty creative use of VoIP in distributed organisations, and sure people were starting to get used to 1MB audio files of voicemail recordings clogging up their inbox, but was anyone really doing full blooded UC very much? Not really.

Call me a zealot

It’s funny because this was the point at which I became a UC convert, and soon after, zealot. My company had been using VoIP since we started. An unusually dispersed workforce for an SME, we had been using one of the slightly idiosyncratic VoIP client for our Nortel BCM since 2006 so when Lync 2010 came along and our resident Microsoft guru suggested it had the capability to not only give us IM and presence but also supplant our phone system, we were perhaps more open to the idea than most. And turns out, he was totally right. Indeed bringing Lync 2010 into the company transformed the way we worked. And that is not marketing bulls**t. It is a completely sober statement of fact. With Lync 2010, UC had come of age. It was slick, it was user friendly, it was stable, it had great call quality and user experience – it was (ok, probably after virtualisation) about the most transformative and truly exciting technology that I had come across. Too much? I said zealot. I meant it. Honestly no.

We were a business of 16 operating out of an office in West London. With Lync 2010, we opened an office in Gujarat State, India. OK, we could have done it without Lync, but Lync made it work better, faster and so much more smoothly than would have been possible without. Our staff were able to work from home routinely, with almost no impact on their productivity. We were able to share knowledge, help each other out, conduct hours-long discussions on shared projects using IM without ever having to bother people with a call. The business thrived in the always in-touch environment where you could always get or give help there and then without being intrusive. Customers were better looked after thanks to the silent web of interaction going on behind the scenes and you knew who was around to help when you needed them.

So, nirvana. Surely this was it. UC would take over the world. Well, I sat and watched, I talked to clients, I tried to get them to see my vision of the promised land, and they, they, well they sort of shrugged, and looked up a number in their rolodex, tapped it out on their Avaya desk phone keypad and got on with their day . . .

And you know what, 6 years later, it is pretty much the same story. Lync 2013 came, Skype for Business (btw, as I think we are all agreed, the worst piece of product naming since time began) came. More features, more supported devices, more ways to buy it, lower prices, everything. And yet, where is it? Where is the converged world of unified communications? Where is the world of offices free of desk phones and people taking VoIP calls on the laptops and smart phones? Where is the world of everyone doing video calls every 5 minutes? Where are the distributed teams working on projects from all corners of the world as though they were in one room – the ‘global village’ of collaboration (sorry couldn’t resist digging that little cliché out).

Taking people’s phones away

Well, it turns out that, and this will come as a surprise I know, but people don’t like change much. I will say that again as it turns out to be a really big deal here. They really don’t like change. And this has consequences for getting then to buy into UC. UC is change. It means change to some really fundamental ways that people work that they have been used to for, potentially decades.

This change is a factor in two ways. And here I going to be a bit clever-dick and quote Machiavelli, as, well he doesn’t get quoted enough these days. He said “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.  Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and the lukewarm defenders in those who might do well under the new”. Bear with me . . .

First off, when you go UC, you are probably talking about taking away a lot of people’s phones. Why have phones when you can just give everyone a headset and have them use a massively user-friendly and powerful softphone UI on their computer? Especially when at something like £150 a head, they add hugely (and unnecessarily) to the budget of the project.  Plus, whoever was looking after the old system was probably pretty happy with things as they were. So everyone attached to the old system for whatever reason are not going to welcome you taking it away.

On the other hand, you have all the great new features that make all the change worthwhile. There are too many to list and they are real and they are meaningful. Trouble is, no one has any experience of using them, or any sense of how they will make their lives easier, so until the system is bought, paid for and been in use for a few days, it’s pretty much a matter of “yeah, that sounds nice,… I guess”. So don’t expect any cheerleaders for the new system.

And so organisations just stick with what they know. And you know, who can blame them. This is human nature and the logic is understandable. Why am I going trade out my nicely working phone system that has worked for years? What did it do wrong? The IT department have this plan to take my phone away but I don’t want to wear a headset. I don’t work in a call centre and I don’t want to start. And I honestly can’t think when I actually need to do a video call or an ad-hoc conference call of 5 people all of a sudden. We have GoToMeeting and it works fine thanks.

So how to break the stalemate? And is this going to be the year that UC really breaks out to become a major player in the telecoms space.

Well, the trick is really about minimising the change. This doesn’t mean that you have to hobble the service, just that you provide users with a more “backwards compatible” approach to moving to UC. And that means handsets and it also means being able to move to Skype for Business (which I think is going to become the pre-eminent player in this space) without feeling too bad about the requirement to probably shift their email system.

So first off, on-prem S4B is a non-starter for SMEs. It is complex and expensive and not something most businesses will, or should, take on, if they have any sense. So on the server side you are looking at 3 options.

The first and simplest is a Microsoft hosting partner providing a fully hosted Exchange and S4B stack with telephony. This is a pretty established route in fact and works well. Downside, well, you are potentially competing with Office 365 in this space and users might ask why they are paying extra for the hosted services when they are supposed to get them in O365. And even if they only have their eye on Office 365, they may be wary about moving to a hoster’s cloud service, only for them move to Office 365 later.

Option 2, which works well for larger SMEs, is a hoster providing a dedicated hosted S4B platform to tie into the clients existing Office 365 services. There is nice synergy here. The client makes great use of their E3 or E4 licenses for Office 365 and gets a fully bespoke and customisable PBX as well. Its costs are fine for 50+ users or so.

Option 3 is Microsoft’s Office recently-launched 365 E5 licenses now providing telephony. In fact, I think these might be a bit disappointing, at least in the first place. Telephony is more complicated than just making and terminating calls when you are in a business context and while Skype for Business server has great call handling capabilities, the Office 365 control panel does not, and nor do Microsoft have any experience of the nitty gritty of being a telecoms operator in the UK, so it looks like it will be a while before that matures into something compelling. Also the price point will scare off most SMEs.

So that leaves you with possible coverage of, probably 40-50% of the SME market at present using options 1 and 2. But Microsoft are wising up and they will surely work more on the all-in model for Office 365 to round-out the offering for SMEs sooner or later.

The next thing that you need is handsets. Now here, things have been a bit slow for a while. Polycom have pretty much had the space to themselves for years. Other vendors such as Snom and HP have made a play but Snom are not always up to the job and HPs range is small and dwindling. Interesting then that Microsoft have been working hard with Yealink to launch support for Skype for Business for their T4 range. These are affordable and there is a good range for different types of user. You can see them on the desks of SMEs already in large numbers.

If not now?

So, is this the year for UC to go mainstream in the SME space? Well, much as I love it and much as recent changes in the space are very welcome, I would have to conclude, no. There will continue to be growth in the space for sure, but coverage will still be in single percent figures for UC in its fullest incarnation. 2017 though? Yes, I think that is when it will become far more popular. Why? Well first, they will be more handsets to choose from. Secondly, Office 365 will become more and more widespread among customers so once Microsoft provide a simple, cost-effective and capable upgrade to the Business Premium license in Office 365 so customers can just add on telephony without any other major change to their systems, then I think it will become a really accessible and attractive solution.

In the meantime, you will want to get familiar with the services that are available now. Skype for Business is already a great application, even without full UC and telephony. And for the more forward thinking, there are already great working services out there based on hosting partner services. If you can lead the process of switching to cloud Unified Comms within your business or with your clients then you will be in the driving seat for the next big change of strategy in the comms market.

Find out more about Cerberus hosting solutions for Unified Communications

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