Shawn Harry | Is “Unified Communications” dead?
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Is “Unified Communications” dead?

Is the well the established marketing term “Unified Communications” dead? This may seem like a bit of a hyperbolic headline but in my opinion the term Unified Communications is essentially dead, outdated, or at best should be treated as a legacy term to describe legacy integrations between vendors, EG Cisco and Skype for Business (Lync) or any other proprietary vendor integration.

UC much like the term ‘Hybrid’ means different things to different vendors but for the purposes of this article im speaking strictly in the Microsoft context and Microsofts historical approach to UC with Lync and subsequently Skype for Business.

At this years Ignite Microsoft have coined a new term “Intelligient Communications” but personally this term doesnt feel captivating, suitable or practical to me. Its too nebulous and wooly for my liking. Dare i say it Cloudy… In my opinion terminology should be very clear, concise and easily understood by any user. Microsoft seem to have acknowledged this short coming within SfBO with the recent renaming of some SfBO features like Cloud PBX to Phone System or PSTN calling to Calling Plan as examples. These terms or taxonomies should invoke a specific concise thought among the initiated or the unitiated. Thus terminology is even more important to get right as consumers and purchasers of Microsoft Cloud related services arent neccesarily always technical. Therefore when purchasing various features from the service the naming conventions should not cause confusion which has been the case in the past.

For the unitiated or at least for those within the industry who are non-technical the term UC conjures up a number of different thoughts. May be the type of vendors that are normally used for UC, like Microsoft, Cisco, Avaya or Mitel each one claiming at some point to provide a Unified Communications product and experience to their users. But at least Microsoft have tacitly acknowledged (i believe last year they used the term Universal Communications) that the term Unified Communications is no longer suitable to describe the Skype for Business ecosystem and experience which with the addition and pivot to Teams is now much bigger than the sum total of its parts.

Consider these UC examples. In the earlier years of UC Microsoft actively promoted a “best of breed” approach. Gaps in the SfB/Lync ecosystem were plugged by 3rd party vendors and ISV’s and SfB/Lync grew to have burgeoning ecosystem that was suitable for most businesses be it SMB or Enterprise. The Lync Interoperability Program was actively encouraged for partner/vendor integration. Though if you look at the Lync or SfB supported IP-PBX’s or even the Exchange Unified Messaging (Telephony Advisor) its quite clear from an interoperability perspective very little has been done in the last 5 years and more to improve the interoperability or UC story with ‘rival’ vendors.

Cisco conversely as an example encouraged a one vendor approach. In fact in the earlier years of real time communication server (LCS/OCS/Lync) Cisco’s enterprise telephony solution was the maturer of the two. But both vendors in the drive for adoption and pressure from customers looking to sweat their assets actively promoted features like Remote Call Control (Lync) or CUCIMOC/CUCILYNC (Ciscos Unified Communications Integration for Microsoft Office Communicator or Lync). The lata was a CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) software based integration for Lync that while providing call control via CUCM for OCS/Lync also had a number of limitations and drawbacks. Remote Call Control was a backend integration between a IP-PBX and Lync leveraging CSTA gateways to provide presence updates and call control via the IP-PBX (EG CUCM/CUPS). This approach also had advantages and disadvantages but the pertinent point is proprietary vendor integrations were and are always difficult or complex, of which Microsoft incidentally no longer even support RCC. Support for RCC was dropped in SfBS 2015 as well as the SfB 2016 desktop client. Call Via Work was the touted replacement for RCC which allowed for integration with a IP-PBX so calls could be placed via a users handset but this feature has also experienced low adoption. What has become very clear over the years is the “Unified” approach between competing vendors is no longer the best approach which is proven by Microsofts deprecation of some of these integration features. In that respect Ciscos ‘one vendor’ approach has materialised to be the better of the two.

In terms of completeness of vision Microsoft stands head and shoulders above its peers in the O365/SfBO/SfBS/Teams space with Cisco nipping at its heels with Cisco Spark for Cloud users and Cisco Jabber for on-premises. In fact no other vendor has a ‘dedicated’ public collaboration Cloud. So O365 is quite unique in this regard. Thus to my opening point as Microsofts communications offering has become more mature and feature complete a Unified approach utilising ‘rival’ vendors, at least from a architecture point of view, is no longer required. In fact Cloud has entirely turned the UC premise based paradigm on its head as the O365 platform and Teams is purpose built with all communication capabilities provided directly from the Cloud with no 3rd party vendor integration required.

So with the transition to the Cloud and Teams as well as the completeness of the Skype For Business Server ecosystem is Unified Communications an appropriate enough term to describe either the architecture or the end user experience anymore? In the context of Microsoft is the term UC even valid anymore as an industry marketing moniker? Seeing as all communication modalities are effectively treated as peers EG Voice & Video or Instant Messaging & Presence etc is it even neccesary to point out that they’re ‘Unified’ anymore? – users after all just expect to be able to communicate however they want from the desired application EG SfB or Teams choosing the appropriate modality right? Is the new marketing term “Intelligient Communications” a suitable replacement for UC?

I think il leave that last question for my next ‘op-ed’.