Thumbs up for unified communications
Unified communications can offer enterprises a number of
benefits. But the market adoption of the technology is slow. A look at the business
and technology benefits of this form of communication. by Larry Velez
Historically, companies have expected significant employee productivity improvements
by offering employees a unified message box to access e-mail, voice mail, SMS,
teletex, and fax from multiple points of interaction (POIs) The POIs are fixed
phones, mobile or cellular phones, PCs, and PDAs.
Market adoption rates were projected to be billions of US dollars, yet the total
market was expected to reach only $500 million at the end of 2003 (approximately),
and we believe the market will not exceed $1 billion by 2007.
The market size approximations (for 2003-07) can be divided into three segments:
enterprise sales ($100M-$200M), service provider products ($100M-$200M), and
service provider services ($300M-$500M). Across these segments, a transformation
in the technology is taking place that promises to fill the value gap that currently
exists in systems.
This transformation is the evolution of Unified Messaging (UM) into Unified
Communications (UC). The new features in UC are making the investment business
case more compelling, but early UC experiences are reminiscent of the same buyer
patterns that convinced companies to purchase UM systems. These benefits are
focused on the sales and field service force, and therefore are shared by less
than five percent of company personnel.
The migration to IP and the insourcing of bridging services will expand in 2003
as enterprises realize cost savings. A renewed interest in Web-based rich media
will lead to a marginal increase in the deployment of enterprise content delivery
networks to minimize network impacts in 2003, accelerating in 2004.
To understand unified communications, it is appropriate to review the basics
of proprietary unified communications infrastructure and the complexities of
scaling it out to encompass new features and functions, like adding automatic
This will establish the foundation for discussing how UC solves scaling challenges
by endorsing industry IT standards, and introduces how the UC architecture is
extended to support real-time communications, including call screening and notification,
presence management, multi-party Web and audio conferencing, instant messaging,
automated assistant, and calendar and rule-based routing.
Unified Messaging 101
UM enables company employees to access audio or electronic messages from a single
system. The system is accessible from different POIs. The most common POIs currently
in use are fixed telephones, mobile or cellular phones, and the PC. In layman
terms, a customer sends or leaves a message for a company employee, and the
message is 'stored' in a single or virtual message box.
Depending on the implementation, the messages are either stored in a single
physical location or dynamically aggregated just before they are forwarded to
the employee via e-mail. The employee can retrieve his or her personal messages
and either listen to voice mail messages or read text.
Advanced systems can also convert text messages into speech, enabling the
employee to listen to the text message. Moreover, the employee may be able to
reply to a message by speaking his message into the system; the system then
converts the message into text. The text is then sent to the customer as an
e-mail or another text message type. These advanced system features are provided
via speech synthesis i.e., Speech To Text (STT), Text To Speech (TTS), and Automatic
Speech Recogni-tion (ASR).
Impractical for Many, Useful for a Few
The advanced system features raise some practical complications due to technical
and human limitations:
- TTS translation may be incomprehensible due to abbreviations, grammatical
errors, jargon, language, and colloquialisms.
- STT has imperfections because it creates text with limited punctuation.
In addition, very few people are able to say exactly what they mean in one
take, as a medical doctor would dictate patient diagnosis.
These complications limit UM system usefulness to business environments where
a community of employees has the following characteristics:
- Shares common financial objectives
- Follows a long, time-sensitive, and labor-intensive process
- Works in teams (e.g., territory, industry, customer type)
- Uses other corporate resources (e.g., finance, engineering) as efficiently
This business profile would use advanced UM features to communicate with the
team and customers in short bursts (messages), which incrementally moves the
business process forward. The greater the multiples of these tactical bursts
of communication, the greater the opportunity for increased corporate efficiency.
For example, the reduction of a sales cycle could reduce inventory shelf life,
allowing greater attention to be placed on improving other elements of the internal
sales to fulfillment supply chain.
The UM system can be technically classified as a virtual store-and-forward collaboration
infrastructure. The system is virtual because it is an integration of two store-and-forward
systems: e-mail and voice mail. Moreover, the UM system leverages the store-and-forward
architecture and applies it to other messaging types, like fax, teletext, and
The most basic UM feature will store and forward faxes as an image attachment
to an e-mail. Similarly, voice mail messages can be stored as .wav or other
files and forwarded as an e-mail attachment that can be played on a standard
PC media player.
While these services could be useful for the mobile road warrior, downloading
or replicating e-mail containing voice mail attachments would significantly
increase the size of the download, lengthen the time it takes to replicate,
and increase remote dial-up access costs.
Alternatively, the mail system could be hosted, but this requires the employee
to be online. Another approach is to send a voice mail URL in an e-mail, which
the employee can hear, when he or she goes online.
The advanced UM system integrates speech synthesis, and automatic speech recognition.
In this case, speech synthesis is used to convert text messages into speech
and voice mail into text. ASR is used as the command-and-control interface that
helps the employee navigate though the system, offering basic commands such
as read, delete, pause, purge, and write.
To write a message, the message is first stored as a voice mail. It then passes
through the STT engine and finally back through the TTS engine to read back
the 'spoken' text message.
In our experience, short messages are spoken back with acceptable accuracy.
The impracticality occurs, when a long time is spent to determine whether the
message is acceptable. In addition, the IT Organization (ITO) should note that
there are often several technical complications:
- An increase in use of database and storage resources, and consequently
costs: Each voice mail converts into an e-mail, and potentially e-mails are
stored as voice mail. The ITO should assess this carefully and seek systems
that reduce consumption of these resources.
- High cost of acquiring speech engine licenses for the sole use of the UM
system: The ITO should instead seek to use the speech engines as a corporate
resource of speech processing power for multiple purposes.
- 'N x integration': The greater the number of POIs and messaging systems
that must be integrated, the greater the cost of ownership to keep the virtual
UM functioning correctly. This is especially the case when enterprises want
to integrate with mobile operator voice mail systems, where the access price
- Integrating speech control, with existing voice mail and e-mail: There
are no open standards to protect the integrity and longevity of the integration
work. This implies that product changes to the store-and-forward infrastructure
could render previous integration work unusable, necessitating costly reintegration.
- Small degrees of inaccuracy in the automatic speech recognition and speech
synthesis engines: These inaccuracies can lead to a cumbersome and frustrating
experience for the user.
- Immature programming and configuration interfaces for the virtual UM system:
Changes to the system that could be done by a skilled administrator are limited.
We often find that the UM vendor is hired to implement changes at high costs.
Despite these impracticalities and technical challenges, numerous companies
still value the UM investment because it has led to the collapse of the total
time needed to meet a business objective (e.g., obtaining product discount approval),
even if the system is not speech-enabled.
Yet market adoption of UM is stagnant, and vendors seek to put a new face on
the technology to solve technical challenges, create new value, and stimulate
adoption. The research and development investments to increase market adoption
have spawned UC.
Technically, UC is a combination of the UM virtual store-and-forward infrastructure
and real-time communications infrastructure. The use of open industry standards
and standard application server platforms provide the foundation to deliver
on the UC feature promise.
The key standard ingredients for UC are as follows:
- Session Initiation Protocol (SIP): This protocol establishes communications
between two IP end points (e.g., IP telephone, IP soft phone) and provides
presence information to be managed by user set or company rules. The vendor
migrations from UM to UC use SIP as the fundamental standard, implying that
a converged local-area network (LAN) is a pre-requisite for using SIP.
- Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP): This protocol is used to
authenticate users on the system and determine their privileges for communications
services. All user details from other systems could be accessed via this directory
- Extensible Markup Language (XML): This protocol is used to embed UC features
in corporate applications. For example, clicking on a client's name from a
CRM application can prompt various message types that could be sent to the
- Voice XML (VXML): This standard protocol is used to build speech-enabled
applications. These applications are short scripts for how to treat incoming
calls. The scripts can be as simple as playing a greeting or as complex as
setting up a dialog with the calling party to arrange an appointment on the
- J2EE or .Net application development framework: This is the general framework
upon which the UC features and functions are built. The vendor community wholeheartedly
believes that UC features must minimize the use of proprietary components,
and use of these application server frameworks represents the initial forays
of vendors building software-only applications.
UC systems provide the ITO with certain advantages. The speech engine can be
shared by other systems and is not locked into one system. And an industry standards-based
interface will insulate integration investments from application changes.
Yet UC does little for increased database and storage requirements, though VoIP
stored messages consume less space than traditional voice mail systems.
UC is a necessary evolution of UM. The evolution makes the integration of multiple
store-and-forward systems more robust. The robustness is the result of several
years of experience building complex single message box systems and significantly
reduces integration and operational complexities.
The use of industry open standards and standard infrastructure increases confidence
in interoperability with other IT systems. The UC system also addresses the
value question behind the unified message box by providing real-time communications
features. These features promise to improve individual and team productivity.
Early business-case successes indicate that this can be valuable for specific
departments within a company. We expect the vendor community to increase market
spending to discover where the benefits of unified communications can be applied
to other departments within a company. We believe the infrastructure agility
of the UC system will assist in the search for new users, and the market will
conservatively grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent between 2003
Larry Velez is program director, Infrastructure, META Group. E-mail him at Larry.Velez@metagroup.com.
www.metagroup.com This article first appeared in Network Computing Asia