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Vendors Clash Over Lack Of Standards At VoiceCon

(This story originally appeared on Network Computing.)

The salient message that came out of Next Generation Communications Architectures general session at VoiceCon 2010 on Monday came from Jack Jachner, vice president of cloud communications for Alcatel-Lucent, who said: "You should choose your communications system from a communications company." Jachner wants that communications company to be Alcatel-Lucent, but that sentiment can be applied to nearly every other vendor represented on the panel, because there is little interoperability between communications systems.

Phil Edholm, vice president for strategy and innovation at Avaya, was a bit bleaker, saying that unified communications today is a like two cans and a string. He sees the value of UC developing in 3-5 years, with services providing advanced services like conference moderation, intelligent device detection, and better, easier collaboration between end-users. Essentially adding services and options that make on-line collaboration as easy as picking up a phone.

UC is very much in its infancy, where a vendor or an integrator like Cisco, HP, IBM or Microsoft has to certify different vendor products like VoIP phones, video servers and displays, and UC software to ensure that the products can interoperate together and figure out their own best practices for deploying the systems live.

It's a time-consuming task for them and ultimately limits the scope of a UC system to a single-vendor, single-customer solution. In a later meeting with Avaya, Phil Edholm said they spend tens of lots of money (I forget how much. Thousands? Millions?) on interoperability testing. UC systems aren't even as open as the POTS because you can't tie multiple vendor UC solutions together or even do something as basic as make a call from one vendor UC product to another vendors UC product. This fact sparked some elbow throwing between the panelists, in NoJitter Editor Eric Krapf's words, over why Microsoft OCS client didn't work with any other vendor's products.

The Wi-Fi Alliance was called out as the example of a third part certification body that works and was largely responsible for the success of Wi-Fi in general. Prior to Wi-Fi Alliance certification of 802.11 access points and NICs, the chances of connecting wireless components together were pretty low.

Had that trend continued, Wi-Fi would have had limited success, at best, and at worst, it would have failed. Through certification outside the standards body, we can connect nearly any wireless node to another and this fueled the uptake of wireless in both the consumer and enterprise markets. Trying to force customers to by from a single source is self-limiting.

The telecom market grew up in a time with the carriers dictated the equipment, services and price for telecommunications services. Remember $50 handsets (in 1970's dollars)? The UC market can't follow in the footsteps of the telecom market. Well, it can, but it won't reach anyway near it's potential. Enterprises are sick of acquiring silos of equipment through mergers and acquisitions that are too expensive to migrate from and too expensive to let continue. Verizon's announcement about their new Immersive Video for example, is a case in point. It's great -- if you and everyone you want to talk to are Verizon customers and use Cisco's telepresence equipment. It's not so great if those you want to talk to are on different services and use non-Cisco equipment. The problem is twofold, which Verizon admits. The first is the lack of interoperability and standardization for carriers to hand off SIP based calls to each other, and the second is a lack of standards for unified communications among software and equipment vendors.

Pat Gavin Galvin, CTO of Unified Communications for IBM, made the great point that there is room for UC vendors to software vendors, service providers and equipment vendors to develop and prove basic interoperability functionality. With voice, that means handsets can communicate seamlessly. For video, displays and camera can transmit and receive video and audio. Software systems can seamlessly negotiate and insert the right protocols and codecs on demand. There is also room for vendors to provide the additional features that only exist within their own product lines or chosen partners like smart-scheduling, presence management, and so on.

The bottom line is that price is not the reason that customers are not buying UC. They aren't buying it because UC within an enterprise isn't valuable enough to justify the cost, but if they can extend their UC to their own partners and customers, they will have a financial incentive to adopt UC.