Unified messaging (UM) is back in the news. The integration of voice mail and e-mail is now seen as either a cause or an effect of the expected migration to IP-telephony. Either way the stakes are high for the vendors – the prize is domination of the enterprise communications market. The stakes are also high for customers, because there are risks in pursuing a UM strategy in isolation.
The two main camps in the UM market are telephony vendors (IP telephony and PBX companies) and e-mail vendors (major software companies). Smaller vendors developing products based on session initiation protocol (SIP) could also have an impact. Until recently, e-mail vendors have viewed voice simply as an add-on to instant messaging (IM), which in itself has not been a major threat to enterprise telephony vendors. Voice communications using IM technology and SIP is still evolving and not ready to compete with the more mature IP telephony systems. However, this picture is about to change with the focus of e-mail vendors shifting towards UM.
Client versus server integration
There are two basic approaches to UM, which can be described as integration at the server and integration at the client. E-mail vendors gain an advantage in using their server, and accordingly telephony vendors might favour using the desktop. Since neither camp is in a position to completely displace the other, both are forced to collaborate. For the e-mail vendors, this simply buys time until they develop telephony solutions, and are in a position to offer the unified communications. It will not be so easy for any of the telephony vendors to provide such a solution, unless they intend to compete in the e-mail market.
This suggests that major changes in the vendor landscape are on the horizon. Mergers or acquisitions amongst telephony vendors could create one or two players with enough clout. Alternatively one or two mergers or acquisitions, each involving an e-mail vendor and a telephony vendor, would produce industry heavyweights. In either scenario, some telephony vendors will disappear from this market.
An enterprise UM strategy, therefore, should involve much more than messaging and will depend on your starting point. If you have already implemented IP telephony, then it would be useful to consider the architectural differences between integration at the server and integration at the desktop. For example, the latter could be a less expensive way of not putting all of your eggs in one basket. Separate e-mail and voice mail servers can reduce the probability of simultaneous loss of e-mail and voice mail.
If you have not yet migrated to IP telephony, your UM strategy and IP telephony strategy should be linked. Migration within the next year runs the risk of committing you to a vendor that might not go the distance. As a minimum, you should ensure that your telephony vendor is formally collaborating with your e-mail vendor so their systems can be integrated. Migration beyond that time might allow you more visibility of the new vendor landscape, and will certainly allow you a better picture of the maturing of SIP, UM and presence-based technologies. Regardless of your situation, the common requirement is to have a strategy that has considered the bigger picture. Remember that the telephony vendors frequently say they are becoming software companies. Their predictions might come true, but not necessarily in the way that they are expecting.
Ron Scott is principal of Scott & Associates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org