Unified communications sounds like it ought to be more efficient than dispersed communications, and yet companies have grown and profited in the dispersed era, says consultant Tom Nolle. “What exactly is the gain here, then?” “Not only is it hard to quantify the benefit objective; it would be hard to do a pilot test to prove you could achieve that objective, whatever it was,” says Nolle. UC “failing”

Some might argue there are other big issues It is hard to define “unified communications” these days. It is hard to get agreement on what UC must minimally provide. It is hard to figure out whether point solutions will work well enough that the larger issue of a complete solution are justified. And it is hard to figure out whether the benefit-cost relationship is “best” for upgrading only some capabilities, compared to others.

To say UC is succeeding or failing is a value judgement at the moment. It would not be unfair to say that much about UC remains confusing to potential buyers and users in general. But it would also be fair to say that quantifying productivity gains from enhanced communications always are difficult.

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It might also be fair to say that some UC applications are more favored than in the past, videoconferencing being one example. Also, the business environment is changing.

Global enterprises are shifting to mobile-only communications more rapidly than expected, a new study sponsored by BroadSoft suggests. Notably, 25 percent of enterprise IT decision makers believe desk phones will be replaced by mobile phones within two years, while 82 percent of enterprises have employees currently using mobile applications for communications and collaboration.Enterprises embrace mobile

That changes the decision-making context. The value of integrating fixed and mobile communications remains, but the relative value might be different. In other words, if mobility becomes the dominant communications mode, then the incremental value of integrating fixed and mobile modes is diminished.

The survey, conducted by Cohen Research Group, gathered insight from 200 U.S. and 200 UK IT decision makers (CXOs, VPs, Directors) at enterprises of all sizes.

Some 44 percent of enterprises surveyed have at least a quarter of their workforce operating solely using a mobile phone. Some 30 percent of enterprises support tablets as well. You might think the trend would be more pronounced at smaller enterprises, but the survey suggests the mobile substitution trend is most pronounced in the mid-market and enterprise segments of the market. This tends to be most true for organizations with six or more locations.

Fully 62 percent of respondents are expanding their enterprise’s unified communications capabilities, while instant messaging, web collaboration and videoconferencing were identified as the top UC services they are looking to support on mobile devices over the next three years.

Also, some 72 percent of U.S. respondents are looking to deploy videoconferencing across their organization in the next year, compared to 56 percent in the United Kingdom.

Other elements of the communications background as changing as well. There are over 2.5 billion instant messaging accounts worldwide in 2011, growing to 3.3 billion by 2015, according to the Radicati Group. Any number of conclusions can be drawn from those sorts of estimates. IM long has been seen as partly complementary to other message formats, and often as a replacement.

In many instances, IM is a substitute for email, as email has become a substitute for voice conversations. Earlier this year, European IT services giant Atos Origin declared its intentions to completely phase email out of their internal operations within the next three years, for example. That might be unusual at the moment, but illustrates the potential change. Getting rid of email

That sort of change will have implications for providers of enterprise email systems, of course. Communications service providers won’t be directly affected, as the displacement of voice by email already has occurred. Whether users avail themselves of email or IM does not affect service provider revenues in a material way.

But mobile service providers might face new revenue challenges, to the extent that IM also is a replacement for lucrative text messaging revenues. That is a much-bigger potential threat. At this point, as IM systems are not fully federated, there remain barriers. In the past, when email systems were not fully federated, adoption likewise was slow. Only when email was federated, and network effects were seen, did email use become ubiquitous.

One might argue that until IM is fully federated, IM cannot fully displace most email messaging. But there are other implications as well. Instant Messaging also might be said to be blurring the line with unified communications.

That could have revenue implications for suppliers of IP business phone services, hosted business phone services as well as suppliers of messaging services.

As IM services add voice and video chat capabilities, as well as mobile device access and integration with social networks, you can see how IM could supplant some important amount of demand for unified communications services, appliances and software.

There are issues, of course. Enterprises will worry about legal compliance, security and management issues. But the Radacati Group estimate suggests such issues might not be insurmountable obstacles.

“Communications” and “messaging” are not the only forms of communication that newer formats and channels are changing. Many would note that social networks now are important ways that people find interesting stories, photos, videos and other content. Websites have become important “publishing” venues.

Entertainment content, to an important but still limited extent, is shifting to web-enabled formats as well, including audio, video and text formats, creating changes across the media revenue landscape.

It doesn’t take much insight to suggest that growing use of IM and other new communication formats, particularly as they begin to incorporate “rich media” capabilties, has potential to shift much revenue in the communications business. In part, that could come in the form of displacement of “extra fee to use” formats with “no incremental charge” formats.

But all these changes also indicate why selling unified communications remains a challenge.

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