The business telephone system is traditionally not a place for cost savings. This is especially true in the world of small business, where the fixed costs of hardware and installation would be hard to overcome. On top of that, installing a new system and reassigning staff to support often impacts staff productivity. People are used to the systems of communication that they prefer, and even if the new system improves upon the legacy, there can be trouble in switching over.
New proprietary technologies often restrict the type of integration that is allowed with office applications that may come from competing brands. These limitation may also place limits on the range of handset options and the ability to work remotely.
The Universal Communication (UC) format is a protocol that takes care of many of these problems. Let’s take a look at exactly what this format is and what it means for your business VoIP system.
What is Universal Communications?
Universal communications is the next step beyond unified communications. Both of the ideas have the acronym “UC” attached to them, but they mean vastly different things.
The idea of unified communications, known generally as UC, is bringing together the most important enterprise communication services into a single user interface that provides a consistent experience no matter the media or device type that is being used. The services include voice/IP telephony, instant messaging (IM), mobility features, presence information, speech recognition, voicemail, email, SMS, fax, desktop sharing, fixed mobile convergence, audio, video and web conferencing and call control.
When taken in its widest sense, the UC umbrella can encompass every form of communication that moves over a network. It can include digital signage as well as Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) because of their recent integration into the deployment of commercial network communications. They may be directed as broadcast communications or one to one communications.
The UC standard allows a user to send a communication on one medium and have that same communication received on another medium. As an example, a user can send a voicemail message, while the recipient chooses to take the message as an email (this is an especially popular choice with business users). This allows users on both sides to choose the most effective timeline and medium for their current situation, increasing the likelihood of a successful communication.
Experts from different perspectives define the UC standard very differently. One of the basic definitions that is widely accepted could be paraphrased as “integrated communications with the primary purpose of optimizing user productivity and business processes.” The integration spoken of in this definition can take a number of forms:
- Users adjusting habits away from traditional and unoptimized routines
- Manual integration set by training and procedures
- Integration into tools including Salesforce.com, Outlook, Thunderbird, BlackBerry and Lotus Notes
- Integration that is specific to a customized application in vertical markets, e.g., healthcare
UC is continuously evolving as a technology that unifies real users and their devices, automating communications into a singular experience and context. It is meant to enhance communications by eliminating dependencies on media and devices, managing the flow of data and reducing latency.
In order to fully understand the advantages of providing UC in a single system, it is essential to understand the basics of its history.
The History of UC
The evolution of the technology that supports the UC standard is tied to the history of the basic idea of UC. The traditional form of business telephony took the form of either a key telephone system or a private branch exchange (PBX). Local phone companies controlled the provision and management of both of these systems, which used the digital or analog circuits to send phone transmissions out of a centralized office to the end user. The PBX or key telephone system accepted the transmission, routed it to the correct number, and the call was complete.
The 1980s brought IVR features to voice mail systems. Email and mobile phones began to hit the commercial market. New forms of communication were integrated into the traditional systems, with email reading combined with voicemail features as early as 1985.
The mid 1990s brought the first instances of the term “unified communications.” During this time, real time communications and voice messaging were fully integrated into each other. 1993 saw the company ThinkRite develop POET, a unified messaging system built for IBM. IBM used POET until the year 2000. Also in the late 1990s, New Zealand company IPFX developed a presence product that was commercially available across a limited userbase. The product let end users control decision on how to contact colleagues while viewing their location and define how to handle the message based on their presence. The Nortel Succession MX then came out as the first full stack UC/telephony convergence. It was later renamed the Nortel Multimedia Communications Server.
Although progress was being made, there was one major problem – the function of these new systems all relied on the phone company to manage the key telephone or PBX system. The cost was passed on to customers. The PBX was privatized over time with new staff hired to administrate the system. However, there was a prohibitive cost to this tactic although it did reduce the reliance on telephone companies. This became a trend that resulted in more powerful usability and management software.
These networks were used to transmit voice calls instead of the traditional telephone networks, and more companies started using their own IP networks. Nortel and Avaya began creating systems that could be interconnected to the IP network. Eventually, companies including Cisco, Wildix, Mitel and Siemens began to see the advantages of completely eliminating the traditional phone system and moving into an IP based solution driven completely by software. When PBX circuits are completely eliminated from the process, Voice over IP, or VoIP, can be created.
IP telephony eliminated the need for a PBX copper loop handset. The new handset actually lives directly on the network as an additional computer device. Audio transport is now no longer a voltage variation or frequency modulation. Rather, it is a conversation that is encoded using a CODEC and transported using something like RTP (Real time Transport Protocol). Because the handset is a computer that is network connected, it can be compatible with other features by simply communicating through the network from applications to servers. New apps can also be easily installed or upgraded on the handset.
The definition the unified communications has been influenced a great deal by proprietary products. Products such as Elastix, Druid, Office Communications Server and Lotus Sametime all have slightly different standards for unified communications based on the needs of the product. In 2010, the UCIF (Unified Communications Interoperability Forum) was created as a connective tissue between these companies to increase compatibility between them. Polycom, Microsoft, Juniper Networks, HP and Logitech were the founding members of UCIF.
Unified communications may also refer to solutions that are hosted by a service provider or hosted privately on premises at an enterprise. Both standards offer a certain type of advantage, and they can both be grouped under the general umbrella of unified communications. This is also how the term “universal communications” came about – as a way to distinguish between the individual standards that comprise a proprietary platform and the overall standard that attempts to connect them all into a larger technology.
Unified Messaging vs. Unified/Universal Communications
Unified or universal communications should not be confused with unified messaging. The two ideas are distinct and separate from each other. UC is the delivery, both real time and non real time, of communications that move around the recipient’s location and the chosen method of delivery. Unified messaging is a holding source that combines several sources – fax, voice mail, email, etc. – and keeps those messages for retrieval. Although you can gather any message from nearly any source with unified messaging, unified communications simply offers an additional level of sourcing and delivery that most businesses find great utility in.
Unified communications is a collection of different parts that includes the following:
- Business process integration (BPI)
- Unified messaging
- Multimodal communications & call control
- Personal assistance
- Speech access
- Collaboration tools
- The software that enables BPI
- Instant messaging (IM)
“Presence” is perhaps one of the least known and most important aspects of UC. Presence is defined as understanding the location of recipients and whether they are available. All of this must be done in real time. UC is a tool of integration that combines all of the systems that are already being utilized by an end user, controlling and integrating those systems together in real time. Unified messaging does not do this.
As an example, a unified communications platform creates a way for two users to work together on a project remotely, making access easy with the ability to switch communications between video, email, text and any other form that may be necessary.
Unified communications and collaboration as a service, or UCaaS, is the next step in the unified communications landscape. Combining the technological advancements of the UC with cloud based functionality, UCaaS offers higher scalability and more flexibility within a cost effective subscription based platform.
UCaaS is the next step in providing truly universal communications within a single system. This is why the market for UCaaS has exploded in recent years, growing at a CAGR of 29% circa 2017, with a total market share of about US $2 billion per annum. These stats are expected to accelerate as more companies move into a space of truly universal communications.
UCaaS speeds up the implementation of the unified/universal communications standard because UCaaS does not require any huge hardware purchases or major onboarding sessions. Repairs and maintenance are taken care of off site as well, with deployment mirrors to keep supply side problems from ever facing the customer. Updates are done in an automated way, so no company has to worry about being hacked or becoming incompatible with the current generation of technology by mistake.
Some companies with sizable IT departments are choosing to set up UC instead of going into the cloud with UCaaS. This is a trend that is expected to change. With market leaders going into the cloud and hyping up hybrid solutions, the rest of the UC market will likely follow, according to most experts. The perceived security that proximity brings is also quickly becoming exposed as a myth. Off site communications platforms are often better at maintaining a strong security presence because they are sharing the cost of upgrading among many clients. Contrast this with a company that has on site UC – it must pay fully for all security updates by itself.
This is why we see mid-market companies moving into the cloud at a rapid pace. Cloud telephony is looking to grow at a CAGR of 15.8% from the period of 2016 to 2021. Telephony that is on site will decline during the same period at a 9.5% CAGR, according to Gartner. Alongside that change, product support services will also experience a slight decline of 1.4% CAGR. In the small business world, cloud telephony use will double. By 2021, UCaaS will be a part of 45% of small business.
Understanding the UC standard is the first step in knowing why universal communications is the future of business and technology. Looking into where the market goes is the next step. We can all look to a more consolidated way of communicating through a wider variety of sources as UC becomes a bigger part of commercial society.
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