The communications (r)evolution part 2: Evolution of UC

by Eduard du Plessis, MD of EOH Network Solutions Division

Unified communications will form the bedrock of all business communications in the near future. We are already seeing widespread adoption of the types of UC currently available, with much more powerful, integrated solutions not far off.

When we look at the evolution of UC we find that it’s essentially the history of business communication.

The foundation of UC

Most observers agree on a single event in the development of telephony in the 1980s as the beginning of UC. This was when rotary dial phones were replaced by touch dial phones with buttons, effectively digitalising phones in a primitive way. It opened the door for the development of PBX systems.

The idea for UC came out of an earlier idea – unified messaging (UM), which itself is based on a particular premise: the integration of communications for more efficient business processes.

The “early” technologies behind the emergence of UM were voice mail, interactive voice response (IVR) and early email functionality. Even before the emergence of cell phones, these voice-based systems allowed a new degree of mobility. These text-to-voice systems allowed access to office communications while out of the office.

The development of unified messaging

The first attempts at unifying different types of communications was to combine voice and email. There was an additional focus on bringing this integrated communication to both the desktop and cell phones.

As cell phone technology developed, “find me/follow me” systems emerged, allowing callers to “find” the people they were wanting to call. While this would appear to have been an early implementation of presence technology, it actually wasn’t. It relied on a multiple ring process or user-controlled signal settings. However, we see in this the first expression of a business need to more accurately use communications.

Cell phones also began to allow users more speech control functionality, like the ability to control outgoing and incoming calls, hear and respond to voice mail or email, and read calendars using voice commands.

On the desktop, email and voice mail began to be combined in a single interface, and the logical next step was to add call control functionality. This computer telephony integration technology was the first introduction of a softphone PC client.

It was at this point, where real-time communications combined with messaging in a single interface that the term “unified communications” was first coined, even though we would hesitate these days to call something so primitive UC.

IP telephony – the big enabler of UC

By the early 2000s IP telephony had arrived and had been seized upon by service providers to roll out a very quick-win product: VoIP. Its main appeal was – and still is – its ability to drastically reduce business call expenses.

However, the real power of IP telephony lies in its ability to empower other technologies – to provide a new communications transmission platform. By allowing voice to be transmitted over the same protocol as data, it allowed the two types of communication to be merged in a way not possible before.

What this meant in practice in the development of UC was that the control and use of previously disparate communications technologies could be integrated into and presented as one single interface. It became possible to combine voice, email, mobility, desktop, speech technology and unified messaging in a single, “unified” communications experience.

The next big shift – cloud computing

IP telephony received a massive boost from another Internet technology: cloud computing. The combination of the two made it possible for communications technologies to be virtualised and delivered via IP.

This meant that in addition to introducing advanced business communications technology, the entire business communications model could be relooked. Instead of buying a lot of expensive hardware and IT resources in order to get a high-tech business communications environment, companies could now use virtual IP-PBX systems on a consumption basis – meaning no physical infrastructure or capex.

This brings us to where we are now, where the leading-edge UC solutions are being delivered via the cloud, combining all possible communications methods with mobile technology.

Enabling a new generation in the workforce

Because UC gathers all communications methods into a single system, it is perfectly suited to the modern work and communication behaviours of the generation that will soon come to dominate the workforce: millennials.

These individuals approach technology in an “always on” manner, choosing to use a variety of communication tools at different times and in ways that match their lifestyles. They expect hyperconnectivity and freedom of choice when it comes to technology. They also expect ways of working and communicating in the business world to be as intuitive as their own habits.

UC’s ability to offer “always on” communications, with effective presence information and an all-encompassing range of communications methods thus makes it a key enabling tool for this future workforce.

Du Plessis will delve deep into each of the trends changing our workplaces today and in the future in a series of articles. Look out for The Communications (r)evolution Part 3 next.