UC opportunities in lean times

Depressed markets are likely to continue their adverse impact on the unified communications (UC) industry for at least another three years, with some vendors already experiencing contraction in revenues.

April 10, 2012

BY BENNIE LANGENHOVEN, MANAGING EXECUTIVE, TELLUMAT COMMUNICATION SOLUTIONS*

Depressed markets are likely to continue their adverse impact on the unified communications (UC) industry for at least another three years, with some vendors already experiencing contraction in revenues.

In this climate, customers can only be swayed by low upfront and ongoing solution costs. Vendors with independent research to back their claims of good return on investment (ROI) and low total cost of ownership (TCO) over the lifetime of a UC solution will stand the best chance of success in these circumstances.

In some cases it is even possible to prove that moving to a UC solution will save customers money compared to keeping their current PBX. Vendors with stories this compelling, together with proven track record in significant markets, will grow aggressively in the next five years. Those that do not have a good story will likely bring prices down, forcing their channels to do the same. This is unsustainable, as it will have a negative impact either on channel costs or on customer satisfaction.

Beyond cost, the vendors that best leverage the exciting current developments in UC, including increased video communications, mobile and cloud computing, and social media, will be the ones that streak ahead of the competition when the market recovers.

Silver lining
One of the brightest silver linings in the dark cloud of the lingering recession is the rise of cloud-based PBX solutions. The cloud computing paradigm will be pushed increasingly more vocally, and more hosted services are seeing the light, but uptake of UC in the cloud will remain modest.

The main reason is that the UC in the cloud business case and go-to-market models are not yet mature enough. Customers needs to be satisfied that the offering makes business sense in terms of cost and the impact on their business versus the risk of having a very critical component of doing business off site under someone else’s control. Another question that must still be answered is the distribution channel of these services. Will service providers deliver the service directly to end customers, via distribution or through resellers? Who will ultimately be responsible for customer satisfaction? In the North American market there is some uptake in the sub-50 user market, but not in mid-sized and enterprise markets. In addition, bandwidth cost and availability remain a concern, especially in South Africa. And since voice is mission-critical with most companies, many organisations are still risk-averse when it comes to hosting their servers off-site.

In the short to medium term, end-user enterprises will probably take on hybrid installations – part on-site and part-hosted. This model could be very cost-effective in organisations with large head offices, some regional offices and a large number of small branches, where on-site deployments are prohibitively costly.

Video
Another light point is the increase in the use of video communications, both in personal use cases (peer-to-peer applications like Skype, but offered by the UC vendor as part of the solution) and business scenarios (videoconferencing between branches and with customers).

More widespread integration of videoconferencing in UC will be accompanied by more prevalent use of collaboration tools like desktop sharing and instant messaging.

Mobile
Mobile devices have such a profound impact on our daily lives that UC vendors have no option but to integrate them tightly into their solution platforms.

Fixed-mobile convergence will play an important role in the evolution of UC over the next few years. Current advances include managing presence on devices and managing handover of calls between desk phones and mobile phones, and between enterprise Voice over Wi-Fi and GSM.

Functions like location-aware presence will become more common, with built-in GPS determining whether to route a call to one’s office or home phone, with the mobile as a second forwarding option. GPS can also auto-activate certain presence settings (out-of-office, in the office, do not disturb, etc.).

Social
The mad popularity of social media will result in tight integration with UC applications, allowing communication and collaboration from within social apps, which themselves will diversify and evolve in the corporate setting.

A business communication portal like a Facebook page may replace the way we communicate at work. This portal will give immediate access to co-workers via video, voice or instant messaging. Giving us the ability to share desktops or collaborate on documents from one single portal and showing status and availability of co-workers.

BYOD
The integration of favourite user devices in the enterprise communications ecosystem presents certain difficulties, such as support (integration of the enterprise PBX with major devices, which are on very short versioning cycles, and device security).

On the other hand, staff-owned mobile devices can bring about great cost savings if done correctly.

BYOD is definitely a big trend for the coming year.

Susceptible but sustainable
Although the unified communications (UC) industry is as vulnerable to persistent economic woes as any other, the industry’s sustainability is due to it being at the centre of unfolding mega trends. How vendors capitalise on these, while showing low TCO and high ROI, will determine their fate.
* Tellumat is the South African distributor of ShoreTel systems.