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Unified communications: linking devices and industries

By Stephen Measelle

Email, text messaging, desk phones, cell phones, even "smart" phones – it seems that at some point, communications became more about tools than people. Wouldn't it be great if we could simplify, but still keep our favorite gadgets?

The�emergent wave of telecom innovation�will simplify things by coordinating how devices, and perhaps even�people, communicate with each other. The technology is based on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). SIP-based software,�residing on�a server or�your personal computer,�senses which device you happen to be available on, and, in turn, routes incoming calls or text�conversations to that device.�The result is that your devices become unified, and accidental phone tag becomes a thing of the past.

To illustrate:�import your contact information from�various sources�into the communication software.
Unified communications is not only linking devices – it's linking industries. As a result, there have been some interesting developments in the telecom equipment industry.
The software�then helps you prioritize�those contacts so that calls from potential clients or the corner office are�treated differently than those from low-priority contacts. You then set your availability,�similar to using instant messenger, so that only high-priority calls�reach you when you're "busy" or� "out to lunch." (A recent study�found that about 70 percent of calls�interrupt something more important.)�Net effect:�you have�a�personal assistant, for�a fraction�of the cost.

But unified communications is not only linking devices – it's linking industries. As a result, there have been some interesting developments in the telecom equipment industry.

Analysts regard it to be at an inflection point. The very technology that the industry has developed is mobilizing a cadre of new competitors.
Unified communications:artist's illustration © Thelspot 2006
Enter Microsoft. In June, the software giant announced that it would compete directly with equipment vendors like Cisco and Alcatel by bundling call functionality with its 2007 server and application offerings. This announcement sent a chill through industry incumbents. Remember Netscape? Over 90 percent of office computers run Microsoft Internet Explorer today. The use of call software imbedded in the Microsoft suite would be an easy way for businesses to reduce costs.

Incumbents are jockeying for position in response to the threat. Some are building their applications based on Linux platforms, while others are aligning with the Microsoft platform. This last July, Nortel clarified where it stands: It announced a three-year strategic partnership with Microsoft.

The�trick now, according to Siemens Communications Manager Jeff Demers, MBA '84, is to "leverage what Microsoft is doing, and manage appropriately." He notes that the entry�of Microsoft is "both good and bad" for incumbents. "Microsoft is driving price points�down and expanding the pie." Capturing a slice becomes a balancing act of competing with Microsoft, perhaps by�aligning with smaller players like Skype, and developing applications that complement the Microsoft platform. The word is coopetition: a blend of cooperation and competition.

Of�course, this begs the question of whether the most profitable customer segment, large businesses, will be comfortable handing off something as crucial as voice to a newcomer. The Nortel alliance suggests that Microsoft will need help and greater credibility in that space, at least for now. Regardless, the�June announcement sent a reminder that when technologies and�industries converge, disruption ensues. Stay tuned – on any device.

Stephen Measelle, MBA '06, is a product manager for Avaya Inc.