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UC Spending Bubble Belies Uncertainty

IT users say they're confused about what unified communications actually is, according to a CompTIA survey. What they really don't understand is that they're already doing it.

Unified communications is entering its own hype cycle, like that of cloud computing, virtualization, and color TV before it, as vendors tout their "me-too" solutions in a familiar history repeating itself pattern.

UC brings together such capabilities as voice, videoconferencing, instant messaging, email, document sharing, and more into one user interface so employees of one company, their partners, and even customers can collaborate with each other across the corporate campus or across oceans. A recently released survey shows that enterprises are in a hurry to catch the UC train, even if they don't quite know where it's going.

IT industry trade association CompTIA reported Monday that a March survey (of about 600 IT end users in big and small organizations) revealed that 49% of respondents expect growth in spending on UC to exceed the growth of their overall IT spending over the next 12 months. For large business with 500 or more employees, the bet on UC is greater, with 65% saying UC spending increases will be greater than overall IT increases, versus just 35% taking that stand in small businesses of under 50 employees. But here's the kicker: Some respondents expressed concerns that they're not sure what they're getting into.

About a third (32%) of respondents told CompTIA they had "a general lack of understanding of unified communications products and services." Other worries were about price sensitivity (39%), reliability (36%), security (34%), and quantifying a return on investment (34%).

As a practical matter, these concerns are similar to those of other new phases in technological innovation. When open source software came on the scene, those unfamiliar with it worried that if they used it, someone would sue them for patent infringement. When virtualization came on the scene, it was only used in software test and development, not in production. In fact, when the light bulb first came out more than a century ago, some feared that if the bulb broke, the electricity would spray out into the room.

Complicating adoption of UC is that some features of it are already in wide adoption, Tim Herbert, VP of research at CompTIA, told me. Email, for instance, is ubiquitous, with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephony quickly becoming mainstream. Videoconferencing is becoming more popular, even if it's with relatively simple technology like Skype rather than high-end systems like Cisco TelePresence or Polycom.

At the same time, businesses are dabbling in use of social media in the context of UC and in collaboration technologies such as document sharing in platforms like Microsoft's SharePoint.

In essence, when it comes to UC (or UCC when you add collaboration to the acronym), what businesses don't understand is that they're already doing it.

"The market is still sorting itself out," said Herbert. "I think many customers are really trying to digest some of the options."

If businesses are perplexed about what UC is and what their strategy should be, the issue is not what technology to buy, but what your company wants to achieve. Think of unified communications, not as an IT budget item but as an element of corporate culture, a declaration of how your organization collaborates with employees, partners, customers, and others to achieve business goals.

Robert Mullins has covered the technology industry in Silicon Valley for more than a decade for various publications. He has written about enterprise computing including stories about servers, storage, data center management, network security, virtualization, and cloud computing.

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