Unified communications, the integration of interactive, real-time conversations, from voice (once colloquially known as "the phone call") to instant messaging, is by now a mature, almost passe, concept in enterprise IT. Look no further than InformationWeek's latest Unified Communications Survey in which 36% of respondents are already using UC, with another 20% planning deployments in the next year.
It's revealing, however, to examine the reasons organizations deploy UC. It's not for the sexy features like live video, Web conferencing, user presence, or social networking that both vendors and tech pundits love to tout. No, the top technology driver is unified messaging, which, stripped of the marketing jargon, boils down to one inbox consolidating access to multiple communication channels and accounts. Further emphasis of the pedestrian uses to which most UC implementations are made, our survey found the top two communication channels, by far, are email and phone, at 91% and 88%, respectively. These old warhorses trounced more modern and trendy mechanisms such as video, IM, and social media.
It seems then that, visionary vendor slideware aside, for most enterprises, UC boils down to merging email and voice mail inboxes, coupled with an easy way to initiate conference calls. One wonders if such decidedly significant UC investments, an average of nearly $500 per user, according to our respondents, justifies such seemingly minor and quotidian benefits. Sadly, that's an open question since 62% of our respondents didn't do an ROI analysis, and of that daring minority that attempted to quantify the financial effects of their investments, almost a quarter didn't meet their goals. Yet even for those "successful" implementations, the benefits are likely fleeting since in the age of smartphones and ubiquitous wireless networks, UC looks like a solution to yesterday's problem.
Examine a few UC data sheets, white papers, and case studies and don't feel bad if you think they bring to mind scenes from an old movie. There's a desk in a cube farm, sporting a big, multiline telephone, with a head shot of a smart, engaged employee staring at a laptop while often simultaneously holding a smartphone. Sadly, there's a disconnect between marketing and reality. UC products still seem designed for the world of Nine to Five, but we're living in The Social Network era.
Many UC vendors realize the problem and now tout their products' ability to bridge the gap between enterprise PBXs and personal cellphones, but for many of us, the PBX is now an irrelevant anachronism. Here's the scary reality UC vendors must eventually come to terms with: For consumers, i.e., the personal side of the work-life seesaw, the smartphone, with its myriad carrier-provided (dare I say, cloud-based) services, is a UC solution. The rub for enterprises in this era of IT consumerization, which has flipped technology trendsetting on its head as new products and applications migrate from home to office, is that dedicated, centrally managed enterprise voice infrastructure, i.e., the legacy upon which UC products build, is now inconsequential. Sure, some putatively progressive organizations have ditched their internal voice systems by migrating to hosted services, but these are still more dedicated, managed hosting arrangements than full-blown multitenant SaaS offerings.
Yet even the managed service model is behind the curve, because consumers, i.e., employees, are already living in the wireless cloud. Verizon (or AT&T or Sprint … take your pick) supplies virtually everything one needs in a UC product: voice, visual voice mail, messaging (both IM and SMS), plus the data pipes for a raft of social software app traffic from Twitter and Facebook to WebEx and Skype. So tell me again why I need an enterprise PBX providing an office phone number? But how do you segregate personal and work lives when using the same device for both? Easy: Use forwarding services like Google Voice to create separate virtual "office" number for your wireless phone.
The standard, well-worn, and frankly tiresome arguments against relinquishing IT services to third parties, whether dedicated providers like managed service providers or fully shared environments in the cloud, will surely be rehashed when it comes to the private-to-public voice/UC transition: They're insecure, there's no control, and the quality and reliability are unpredictable. Guess what, Mr. IT Control Freak, your paying customers, i.e. the business-unit executives forking over IT budget allocations, don't care. No, they place greater value on convenience, cost efficiency, and flexibility than theoretical security risks and occasional service disruptions. Never mind that many of these institutional objections are specious. The likelihood of someone intercepting a sensitive executive phone call hardly changes when moving from the PBX walled garden to a wide-open public wireless network since, guess what, your executives are already discussing sensitive business over the public airwaves. You think your CEO at an analyst meeting in New York is calling his chief of marketing visiting a client in London via VoIP over a VPN tunnel through your corporate PBX? Think again.
While I don't think enterprises will, or should, immediately ditch their incumbent voice and UC systems for wireless carrier services, it seems like the demise of dedicated infrastructure is an ineluctable result of technology trends. With smartphones now an indispensable tool, and the smartphone network controlled by carriers not internal IT, it seems that building internal, real-time communications systems (i.e., UC with internal voice, video, and IM services) is a wasteful effort swimming against the tide of technology.
Of course, there will always be business applications with a large, fixed workforce handling large volumes of incoming calls for which the legacy PBX and on-premises UC software will make sense. Call centers, hospitals, and government bureaucracies aren't going away. However, for the majority of knowledge workers, untethered mobility is the new work environment. For these, subsidizing some, or even all, of the monthly smartphone tariff could prove cheaper than operating a private voice and text messaging system. Just as the millennial generation has "cut the cord" by refusing to adopt wireline phone service, so too enterprises may one day succumb to the wireless imperative.