In an ideal world, a UC system would extend its communications and collaboration tools beyond the boundaries of a single company. If people work together, it's important that they be able to see each other's availability, quickly establish a call or a conference and have at their disposal the full set of capabilities that UC has to offer.
The rub is interoperability--that is, a lack of it. Partners and suppliers will likely have purchased UC platforms from different vendors, and these platforms don't interoperate. Indeed, different divisions within the same company may have implemented IP PBXes from different vendors, which creates interoperability challenges within the organization as well as outside it.
While basic voice and email connectivity between sites is generally assured, UC implementations involve multiple communications modes (HD audio, text, room-size and desktop video) and other functions (presence, application/desktop sharing, user profiles, skills search, and so on). Thus, interoperability takes on a whole new meaning when you put UC in the picture.
For the most part today, intercompany UC interoperability or UC federation exists only within a single vendor's product line. I know of only two vendor platforms that offer some federation capabilities: Cisco UCM and Microsoft Lync. For instance, Cisco publishes a configuration guide for federating presence with Microsoft.
There is also a company called NextPlane that offers a cloud-based UC federation service to interconnect UC products from Microsoft, Cisco, IBM, Google, OpenFire and others, but only for IM and presence. That's a start, but lacks the full firepower of the other UC functions.
The big question is, do UC vendors have any incentive to support federation? Obviously, most of their efforts are going to go into selling their own products. Even the biggest vendors have limits on their development resources, and you can imagine the battles that would have to be waged to divert efforts away from projects that benefit their own products to be put into projects that could be perceived as "helping the other guys."
That said, I think UC vendors do have an incentive to support federation. Communications flourish in open environments, and a unified communications platform becomes much more valuable to a company and its users if it can be used to reach as many other people as possible. The more the value of UC grows, so does its overall appeal, which increases the potential market of UC customers.
There is an industry move to advance UC federation: the UC Interoperability Forum (UCI Forum). Launched in 2010, the UCI Forum describes its mission this way: "to enable interoperability of UC hardware and software across enterprises, service providers, and consumer clouds, as a means of protecting customers' existing investments, simplifying their transition to more extended UC networks, and generating incremental business opportunity for all stakeholders in the ecosystem."
Microsoft is currently the largest UC platform vendor represented in the UCI Forum. There are lots of Microsoft partners on the roster, including Polycom, Plantronics, Aruba Networks and IntelePeer, but no Cisco, Avaya or Siemens (that is, the other three vendors that share the Leaders Quadrant in Gartner's 2012 Magic Quadrant on UC).
It's too soon to say whether the UCI Forum will be a success, but there have been successful multivendor compatibility forums, most notably the Wi-Fi Alliance, whose members have a shared business objective in compatibility.
UC can significantly improve how enterprise users communicate and collaborate, but, for the near term, the reach of those tools is limited by a lack of interoperability. As the market matures and companies come to realize and depend on the capabilities UC has to offer, they may pressure the vendor community into taking a more open-minded view toward interoperability.
Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst.