Web 2.0 UC tools see booming demand

Unified communications equipped with Web 2.0 elements, such as blogs, social networks and videoconferencing, will be requested more as traditional tools no longer suffice to support today's mobile workforce, note industry watchers.

As today's mobile workforce become increasingly social, traditional unified communications (UC) tools are no longer enough to support their needs. This is causing more enterprises to turn to new Web 2.0-based tools to help complement their workforce, which is driving up demand, industry watchers observed.

Sherrie Huang, research manager of IDC Asia-Pacific's unified communications and collaborations practice group, said that UC technology has been moving away from "controlled and traditional" tools, which are identified as e-mail, unified messaging and information portals. Instead, enterprises are now requesting for "self-adaptive and innovative" features such as social networking, blogs, videoconferencing and instant messaging (IM), she noted.

The analyst pointed out in her e-mail that the mobile and social workforce is increasing at a "rapid speed", and in order to catch up, demand for collaborative, Web 2.0-based UC tools is "huge and growing".

"The traditional tools can no longer handle the requirements from changing business [operations] and to satisfy various kinds of new demands [made by the mobile and social workforce]," Huang said. "Hence, new UC tools supporting this group of employees are needed to overcome the gaps and improve efficiencies."

To reinforce those observations, the IDC analyst forecasted that mobility products sold in 12 major countries in Asia-Pacific alone will garner US$134 million in 2014.

Her point is reiterated by Microsoft's Alexander Oddoz-Mazet. The director of business productivity solutions in Asia-Pacific told ZDNet Asia that tools such as e-mail, IM and conference calling were introduced to provide users with capabilities that were "unthinkable" 20 years ago.

Over time, these technologies have evolved independently and parallel with one another, creating "communication silos", he noted.

"These independent silos have led to redundancies and inefficiencies for both the end-user and the administrator. It has become difficult and expensive to maintain them and to ensure that each is in compliance with business and government regulations," Oddoz-Mazet said.

Enterprise-friendly social tools wanted
To address these challenges, Ovum analyst Mike Sapien highlighted that "enterprise-grade" social networks and business videos will develop and become more prevalent in the near future. The principal analyst told ZDNet Asia that while there is a need for such tools, these capabilities will have to be enhanced for the business environment compared with other options available on the Web for the general user.

He said: "In most cases, the enterprise customer will have private internal use initially and then start moving toward inter-company, supply chain and customer deployment before venturing into broader interactions."

Furthermore, Sapien stated that beyond developing UC to be more social and enterprise-ready, IT vendors are also looking to expand the technology to encompass mobile devices, particularly smartphones. Most UC and Internet Protocol Telephony (IPT) vendors are "starting to support" iPhone, BlackBerry and Android devices, he noted.

However, it is the launch of another mobile platform, Windows Phone 7, which has caught the eye of Mike Sheridan, executive vice president (EVP) of contact center UC deployment firm, Aspect.

The company, which partners Redmond for the latter's UC products, has identified the mobile operating system as a welcome addition to further the potential of mobile UC. The EVP said that Windows Phone 7 will be a good platform to bring in UC components such as social media features and integrate these with the other platforms such as Microsoft-based PCs and servers.

"There's a lot of work to be done and a long way to go [to maximize the platform's potential], though," he pointed out in an interview with ZDNet Asia.

Microsoft's Oddoz-Mazet chimed in, saying that the company's latest Lync product, which is the new family brand for the products formerly known as Communications Server, Communications Online and Communicator, enables people to stay connected to others on a wide range of devices while away from the office or to communicate in new ways.

For instance, users can now move a call from a PC to their mobile device and leave the office to continue the conversation without disrupting the flow, he explained.

Implementation challenges
There are challenges still to overcome in order to maximize the return on investment (ROI) for such UC deployments.

According to Peter Borup Jakobsen, director of collaboration architecture marketing at Cisco Asia-Pacific, any enterprise customer looking to deploy UC should also be proactive about changing the company's "culture, processes and technology".

He cited the example of telepresence and how installing the technology is not enough to justify the investment. "It would be essential that some of the company culture and business processes around traveling for internal meetings be changed to drive the ROI around this solution," Jakobsen said, adding that if such changes are not made, "the customer may not realize the full savings and productivity gains".

Meanwhile, rival UC vendor Avaya listed out other challenges that companies will face when implementing extensive use of video collaboration tools.

Ray Teske, regional director for Avaya Asean, said in his e-mail that these obstacles include the high cost of equipment and Internet bandwidth, the need for the installation of a dedicated room for video sessions, the lack of integration with other applications, and the frequency of problems during use.

That said, the Avaya executive noted that the net benefits can outweigh the challenges, if implemented correctly. The positives that companies could gain include stronger working relationships, reduced travel costs and carbon footprints, improved responsiveness, and faster decision-making and execution of business strategies.

"UC has long promised the seamless integration of different communication modes, including video, into one usable interface [and] finally this is possible," said Teske. "Businesses can now have an affordable suite of tools that redefines and simplifies the end-user communications experience, helping users to communicate more effectively and enhancing collaboration."