But during a keynote conference at VoiceCon on Tuesday, a Microsoft executive said the company has proven the transformative power of software in communications, and this is leading to many companies already bypassing a generation of PBX hardware.
Even with the uncertain economic climate, interest in UC seems high. Forrester Research estimated 84% of large enterprises are at least in the evaluation phase, and about 27% have done some type of deployment.
Betsy Frost Webb, Microsoft's general manager for UC marketing, said software UC products could be attractive for businesses during a downturn because they don't have the same amount of capital investment as traditional PBXs, and there aren't the same concerns about depreciation.
"We increasingly hear companies say they need to save money and still be able to grow their business," said Webb. "Investments in unified communications can help keep your business connected and increase productivity even as your travel budgets are being slashed."
Microsoft also showed off some of the new features for Office Communications Server 2007 R2, which will be rolled out next year. The crowd cheered during a demonstration of a call-bridging feature that had seamless video chat, phone muting, desktop sharing, and other features. Webb also said mobile devices will have an expanded role in the server update, and smartphones from Nokia, Motorola, and Research In Motion, and Windows Mobile will soon have deeper UC integration.
But companies that decide to implement UC products may face some difficulties within their organizations, as it inevitably touches upon multiple departments' turf. Representatives from Boeing and the Creative Artists Agency joined Webb on stage to discuss how their implementations have been going.
Michael Terrill, convergence program manager for Boeing, is in the process of modernizing the aging voice infrastructure and is focusing on UC. Because this touched upon various departments -- data, telephone, legal, security -- Terrill stressed it was important to have a governing body with the experience, expertise, patience, and budget to properly implement the system.
For Michael Keithly, CIO of the Creative Artists Agency, implementing Microsoft's communication products was simply about business value. He said the agency had always been pushing the envelope on communications but these had been in silos. Combining these into a horizontal platform enabled the employees to be more mobile and productive.
Both men agreed that a unified communications plan presents productivity and business advantages, but it may take some "cultural changes." These changes can potentially include ditching relatively limited landlines in favor of a headset that does VoIP calls from the desktop, or critically thinking about how an aging voice-mail system could be better integrated into a broader communication platform.
Overall, having a well-thought-out strategy for your implementation plan is the key to boosting productivity and saving money, they said.