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April 21, 2016updated 05 Sep 2016 10:49am

State of the unified communications industry: Who and what was on the UC Expo 2016 agenda?

Analysis: UC Expo 2016 attracts speakers and exhibitors from Vodafone to Facebook.

By Alexander Sword

There are some glamorous and prestigious events in the technology calendar, but it is fairly safe to say that UC Expo would not top such a list.

Perhaps this is unfair. The annual unified communications (UC) event this week has attracted exhibitors and speakers ranging from networking and telecoms providers such as Cisco and Vodafone, to IT giants such as Microsoft, to newer internet companies like Google and Facebook.

As Charlie James, a senior executive at Polycom, told CBR, the "good quantity and quality of footfall" had been particularly noticeable this year.

While not ‘sexy’ like the internet of things or augmented reality, unified communications are likely to be the workplace norm within the next few years.

We probably all already use unified communications to some extent; it simply means integrating various forms of communication such as voice, video or text chat into one system or piece of software.

Perhaps unified communications has been a victim of ‘overbranding’ in this sense. Even Wikipedia described it as a ‘marketing buzzword’ as of April 2016.

According to an IDC report interviewing businesses across the UK and Europe, 93 percent of businesses in Western Europe plan to invest in unified communications over the next 1 to 3 years.

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The EMEA Enterprise Communications Survey found that 14 percent of businesses are planning a major or critical investment and 32 percent a significant investment.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of businesses are already using the technology.

Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle for UC, which tracks excitement and interest in technology against adoption, anticipates that mainstream adoption of technologies such as enterprise file synchronisation and sharing, external peer-to-peer communications and SIP communications is less than two years away.

More advanced technologies such as context-enriched services and web real-time communications are between two and five years away from mainstream adoption.

Speaking to delegates at the conference, there was a sense that the industry no longer had to pitch the importance of the concept but could begin to expand on the capabilities UC offers and how it can slot into a business.

If UC really is a marketing buzzword, companies are now confident enough to shrug it off and talk about what else UC can do.

"We just call it collaboration," said Anita Stein, Global Marketing Director for Unified Communications at AT&T. "UC is too narrow."

Certainly the ability for workers to collaborate was a key theme at the conference, meaning that more and more UC products are about integrating sharing of documents. This is why the term unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) is often used.

For example, Donald McLaughlin, Director of Collaboration Sales at Cisco UKI, explained to CBR how the Cisco Spark product aims to create a "digital room" for collaboration, mimicking the feel of a physical meeting room where documents related to a specific project might be stored.

People working on a specific project have access to a specific digital folder and the documents stored in it.

"[Technology] has squeezed as much productivity as it can out of the individual," says McLaughlin, "but there is a huge opportunity around making teams much more productive. That’s where a lot of our investment is focused."

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Some companies, such as Microsoft’s Skype for Business, can offer their own range of Office products to integrate with the UC software. For example, in an Office document or while typing in Outlook, a user can immediately click a call button and initiate a voice or video call in Skype.

This has also meant UC vendors opening platforms up to allow integration with Salesforce and other third party products.

This focus on technologies beyond communications does not mean that innovation in communication is being ignored by UC companies. A big theme here is the ability to ‘escalate’, meaning switching between different factors of communication like video or voice at will.

Skype for Business’s General Manager Andrew Sinclair said that the above Skype example was about "making it so that people can seamlessly move from one modality to another".

This change in the way we interact is not simply an internal matter, within or even between organisations, but also with customers. Many of the companies at UC Expo were also discussing how integrated communications were being used in ‘omni-channel’, a primarily B2C application.

For example, a customer logs onto a website to get some information. They find that the information isn’t available and want to talk to a representative.

At the moment they would normally have to find the company phone number on the website.

Jonathan Sharp, Director, Britannic Technologies, explains that his company’s technology can simply allow the customers to simply click and icon and enter a call. At the other end, the customer service representative can see what page the customer is on and provide information accordingly.

Another key theme this year, although it has been on the cards for a while, was the death of hardware.

With more and more communications products hosted mostly or entirely in the cloud, the days of high CapEx roll-outs of expensive landline products is mostly over.

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Skype for Business’s Andrew Sinclair told CBR that he saw no reason for businesses to be investing in their own hardware, except for very specific niches.

"The cloud happened," he said. "It’s not just a case of moving your PBx into the cloud, it’s the full stack. It’s where the best integration is.

"There will always be a scenario where you do need [hardware], where there is some esoteric integration that you need, but increasingly the cloud is where it is at."

He said that most people simply need clients, meaning the programme that allows people to connect to a UC system regardless of the hardware that is being used.

Mayank Choudhary, Director of Product Marketing at Oracle Communications, was on the same page, saying that the concrete step that can be taken now by businesses is to begin moving to the cloud.

What has driven all of these trends? To Vishy Gopalakrishnan, AVP of Product Marketing Management, Voice and Collaboration at AT&T, it is a mixture of supply and demand.

Obviously the availability of new technologies such as the cloud has been a factor. Gopalakrishnan says that not only have these technologies advanced but they have become easier to use. On the other hand, demands have evolved too.

"From a demand standpoint, end-users are demanding better tools driven primarily by a desire to work differently and more collaboratively. They are looking to collaborate not just within the four walls of the enterprise but with everybody in the ecosystem.

"When they see the collaboration tools that are available on the consumer side, there is an expectation that collaboration and sharing should be as easy in their professional life as in their personal lives."

He notes that the mixing of different generations within the workplace, with the millennials becoming the largest cohort over the next few years.

Essentially, UC is at the point where supply is very much in a position to meet demand.

For businesses, this means realising why they need the products, why employees want them and what products are out there.

Hotly anticipated or not, UC is already here and ready to change the way we work.

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