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Conflicting strategies aired at unified comms show

This week's Unified Communications Expo saw telephony vendors talking up interoperability, although how desirable this would be for industry behemoths Cisco and Microsoft is open to debate
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By Richard Thurston, Contributor on
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1 of 3 Richard Thurston/ZDNET

Echoing the latest industry buzzwords, this week's VoIP for Business event was re-named Unified Communications Expo.

Communications vendors are now trying to offer more than just voice over a data connection by building in features such as presence and instant messaging, calling this bundle unified communications, or UC for short.

Including its former incarnation, the event is now in its third year, and this week attracted 99 exhibitors to London's Olympia exhibition hall.

Visitor numbers were healthy too. "It really shows that enterprises are serious about adopting unified communications solutions," said Adam Malik, the show's commercial director.

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Delivering the opening keynote, Quocirca analyst Rob Bamforth warned delegates to cut through vendors' marketing hype around UC. He said IT departments should establish suppliers' heritage before buying and try to understand what each of them is offering beyond simply touting cost savings.

Bamforth outlined how many companies have come from a hardware background — either in IT or telecoms — and how some have come from a services background. Their background affects their motives as to how they tell businesses to deploy UC, he said.

For example, Cisco, which has a network heritage, encourages customers to focus on retaining the network as a platform, whereas Microsoft believes control should come from the desktop. Telecoms service providers often preach an entirely different approach by saying that as much equipment as possible should be hosted in their network.

The result is that the market is now in a state of "collision", Bamforth said, with a huge number of service and product offerings, which is becoming more and more complex to understand.

Businesses must take control of UC on their premises, he said, and should be wary of technologies being brought in by individual employees.

The analyst said there should be a clear focus on the business benefits, and not too much thought about the technical elements. "My concern is that people might look at it and say 'We did this, but what did we get for it?'"

He concluded that the decision to roll out UC has to be taken sooner or later. "If you want to move forward, you need to invest," he said. "It is going to cost money to move to a unified communications infrastructure."

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Avaya was keen to illustrate how confusing and disparate UC has become.

The networking specialist's emerging technologies director Bruce Everest told ZDNet.co.uk that the merging of handheld devices, software applications, networking and telephony had made things "very complicated" for businesses.

"People are looking for an explanation from vendors, and they are getting a different story from each vendor. What I'm seeing is that customers are saying they have too many devices, and not a lot of it talks. None of it is unified," he said. "Microsoft has a solution for presence, IBM has one, we have one. Then you have presence from GPS, with your mobile workers."

Avaya is trying to solve the problem of disparate information with its Integrated Presence Server (IPS). The IPS is intended to gather all the various presence information and, by applying pre-determined rules, give users a cohesive set of information on their colleages' availability.

Everest said it's early days for the product, which was announced in March, but added that it will become vital in the future as UC becomes more ubiquitous and complex to administer.

Everest also outlined an initiative similar to Microsoft's, to allow contact centre agents to reach experts in the rest of the business to help them resolve customers' queries first time.

But he had concerns over how this could be implemented. "If the contact centre gets visibility of the rest of the business, how are we going to handle that? I would hate calls to be transferred to the warehouse. The change needs to come from the top down," said Everest.

Avaya is also interested in digital signage, which is the ability to make an advertising screen interact with an individual. For example, someone could scan the barcode on an advertisment for a music album with their mobile phone and have the album delivered to them by 3G. Or an advertisement for a supermarket could change to an advert for dog food as soon as a person with a dog walked by.

Avaya is far from alone in its interest in digital signage, despite the fact that concept is still far from maturity. Cisco is known to be keeping a close eye on the technology as well.

In terms of present technologies, Avaya used its stand to show off its One-X portal, the browser-based software that provides users with control of their IP telephony phones and mobile devices. Everest demonstrated how calls could be handled across a variety of devices using the portal — from a notebook softphone to desktop IP phones to Wi-Fi phones to the Wi-Fi-enabled iPod Touch.

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