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UC Will Prove Challenging to Buyers And Sellers

Unified communications, on face value, could be the application of the decade given all its promises. It lets users access people and resources, no matter the location or communication channel, spurring productivity and boosting business processes at an economical cost.

But dig a little deeper and it's clear integration, and choosing the right solution, could prove challenging for IT departments.

One reason is the crowded unified communications (UC) space, which includes IBM (NYSE: IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), Nortel Networks (NYSE: NT) and Avaya (NYSE: AV) to name just a few.

And that playing field is bound to get noisier since UC technology is evolving from two distinct markets: the e-mail/desktop collaboration space and the telecom industry, according to a new study released this week from Gartner.

"PBX vendors moved into the UC space with unified messaging, IM and other UC applications. The e-mail and desktop collaboration vendors started from a software-based solution and added many of the same applications as the communications vendors. The overlap is now creating a new competitive landscape from both a technology and architectural environment," states the report, Key Issues for Unified Communications, 2008.

While deeming UC as an "early stage" application, Gartner analyst and report author Bern Elliot believes 2008 will be a pivotal year, with more new products and partnership announcements happening just as enterprises begin initiating pilot UC efforts.

"UC will be initially layered on the business, adding value to unstructured communications capabilities to the user base. The sophistication of the organization will determine how valuable and business-changing the UC applications will be," stated Elliot.

Gartner expects software-based solution providers to dominate the UC market place, which industry researcher IDC has said could total $17 billion by 2011.

That's good news for Microsoft and Nortel Networks. The vendors rolled out a new UC service early in March after a year and half of planning. In making the announcement Ruchi Prasad, vice president and general manager, Innovative Communications Alliance, Nortel told InternetNews.com that "the end goal is a software-based unified communications platform."

It's also music to the ears at IBM's UC division. The vendor is dedicating $1 billion in UC R&D and working on an enhanced version of IBM's Lotus Sametime communications platform. In January it detailed its "UC-squared" strategy for integrating voice and data communications with the Lotus Connection collaboration tools.

In his keynote at this week's VoiceCon conference, IBM's Lotus General Manager Mike Rhodin predicted that enterprises will integrate VoIP into business applications and that new UC applications will evolve as more business software is pulled into the mix.

But while Rhodin doesn't expect huge infrastructure "rip and tear" to make UC work, Gartner is clearly concerned that "architectural nuances" of implementations will challenge enterprise deployment.

"Large numbers of servers acting as gateways appear on the road maps of many vendors, and this is even further exacerbated in multi-vendor environments. Integration at an application and function level has commenced with an attempt to simplify, as well as lock, companies into single (or reduced number) vendor solutions," states the report.

That's likely one reason Avaya CEO Louis D'Ambrosio called for a democratic UC strategy on the part of vendors this week, stating in his VoiceCon keynote that UC should be cheap and easy enough to deploy to every person in an organization.

This week announced Avaya introduced several offerings for mobile workers and a services program, all geared toward helping businesses achieve better workforce responsiveness. Last week, newcomer NEC announced new tools for its month-old UC platform.

In determining a UC solution, Gartner says IT leaders will need to assess which UC architectures and technologies best address requirements, and make that assessment early in the planning stage to avoid being forced into product decisions.

The fact that so many vendors are competing and partnering presents a challenge, says Gartner.

"As the market consolidates, enterprises will need to reduce their number of strategic partners. Many of the partnerships will turn into battles between those same former partners. Some relationships will be both competitive and cooperative," states the report.

In addition, there's also another UC hurdle that requires attention.

"The biggest one is likely to be organizational. Each communication area is often under the responsibility of different departments. Each has different budgetary and administrative leadership. So this is something that has to be brought together and means change, which is hard," Elliot stated in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.