AIM, Shame and Blame: The Sad State of Unified Communications

Unified Communications (UC) is an IT industry buzzword that is grabbing the attention of some of the sharpest minds in the business. Many tech giants such as Microsoft and HP have been heavily pushing for Unified Communications.

First off, why you should care: what is Unified Communications and what potential does it hold to effect the average computer user in a technical profession?

The idea behind Unified Communications begins with the barriers that separate two people at a distance and prevent them from collaboration.  Traditional tools such as email, the telephone and instant messaging have helped to provide means of communications and eliminate the barriers of distance.  However these tools generally do not provide a rich experience like onsite collaboration, as they often lack visual and or audio stimuli.  Also, a myriad of proprietary networks separates users from each other and prevents communication.

The idea of Unified Communications is to break down these barriers, and combine these services, to provide a seamless communication environment.

The potential is truly exciting.  Imagine two doctors able to consult each other via live video feeds and show various aspects of a patient’s symptoms, all while sending each other emailed links to pertinent medical information on the internet. 

Or how about two engineers — one in India, one in the U.S. — conversing about circuit board and being able to send short questions or prompts via IM, useful references and live voice and video communications, in which they are able to highlight parts of the circuit board that might be prone to failure or were improperly connected.  The potential gains in productivity and the increases in accuracy would be enormous with UC as a tool in the hands of people in technology or science professions.

Sounds wonderful, right? Well unfortunately, UC, while improving, is still in a relatively sad state.

One of the biggest obstacles is proprietary technology and networks.  A perfect example is the state of instant messaging. 

Last year it was announced that Yahoo and MSN were finally allowing users to connect to each other’s networks.  Google Talk also gained the ability to talk to other Jabber servers, allowing it to communicate with AIM, MSN and Yahoo users.  However, to connect to these users on Google Talk, you must go through a relatively technical process, involving downloading a Jabber client such as Psi.  The process also requires you to have accounts on any services on which you want to connect to other users.

True IM network interoperability — being able to message from you AIM account to your friend’s MSN account — is still not possible for a vast majority of users on various networks, sadly.

The same sort of scenario holds true with telephone.  Various phone codecs are incompatible and UC providers are often unwilling to provide cross-compatibility.  For example, a standardized version of the G.722 codec, a patent-free wideband codec, is used in wideband-enabled IP phones by Cisco, Polycom, Avaya, Snom, Linksys, Mitel, and Grandstream.  However Microsoft’s recently released unified communications phone system only will connect via its proprietary RTAudio codec and a proprietary codec from Polycom, G.722.1 (Siren). 

This means that users of Microsoft’s new communication products will have to resort to lower audio quality narrowband communications with users of G.722 phones.  Ironically, Polycom itself does not support G.722.1 on its phones — its phones use G.722.  Only its video conferencing uses G.722.  So Microsoft’s “Unified Communications” solution cannot even fully connect to the average phones from the company from whence its proprietary codecs came.

“It’s going to be a messy market for next 5 to 10 years,” a researcher for the Forrester Research Study, a commissioned study of Microsoft’s UC products said. “Microsoft will likely dominate the desktop, and Cisco has already proven that it’s strong on the infrastructure side, selling roughly half of the VoIP-enabled telephony lines. So it will be hard to knock them off.”

With such a rough state of current affairs in one branch of communication, hopes of seamless email, telephone, video, and instant messenger conversation seem far, far away.  There are numerous articles and technical papers that elaborate on these kinds of possibilities, but for now, due to the sad state of interoperability, they remain theoretical dreams.

Another major obstacle is price. Many small businesses only opt for standard data and voice packages with a few servers.  They have little ability to purchase expensive hardware to make conference calls, which can cost thousands of dollars.

The unfortunate fact is that if the initial cost of Unified Communications weren’t so high, companies could actually save money with UC, by switching their telephony infrastructure to the Internet.  The Forrester Research study estimated that for every $5 spent on standard calling, only $1 would need to be spent on Microsoft UC calling.

There is some hope on the cost front at least.  Some companies such as HP are hoping to offer new lower cost solutions in hopes of breaking into the small to medium business markets.  HP just announced two lower cost UC solutions that operate with HP’s BladeSystem.  HP says its new offerings provide the customer the ability to “host, integrate and manage email, messaging, presence, conferencing and telephony on a single platform, the new HP Solution Blocks for Unified Communications can help increase employee productivity while decreasing administrative workload.”

Michael Kendall, Manager, HP ESS Solution Builder Program contacted Global Tech News and explained the benefits of HP’s new offerings.

“Our aim is to offer Unified Communications benefits to not only large companies but to midsize companies also. Our solution blocks are a set of tools for resellers to be able to market, sell and quickly deploy big company solutions for midsize companies,” he said. 

A very small shining star in a galaxy of lumbering hot gasses.