Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Unified Communications Works

        Tech | WiFi & Mobile

Cell Phone Image Gallery Real-time delivery is at the heart of unified communications. See more cell phone pictures.
Photo and Co/Getty Images

Even if you've never heard the term unified communications (UC), you're probably familiar with the concept and might even depend on its capabilities. If you've answered work-related e-mails from the golf course or discovered it's easier to respond to voicemails via text message, that flexibility is possible because of unified communications.

Writer and consultant Art Rosenberg coined the term around the year 2000 to describe technology that enabled messages and data to be rerouted to reach the recipient as quickly as possible. As Rosenberg saw it, unified communications was the next logical step for technology [source: Unified Communications Strategies]. It evolved from unified messaging, which streamlined voicemail, e-mail, faxes and other text-based message systems [source: PC Magazine]. Though the terms are sometimes used synonymously, unified communications generally means real-time delivery; unified messaging, on the other hand, implies the messages are stored to be retrieved at the user's convenience. Either way, UC makes it really easy to track you down.

UC is made possible through a collection of products and tools that can be tailored to suit an organization's particular needs. Users can integrate off-the-shelf software like Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes to deliver messages when the recipient is away from the computer. Organizations in specialized, fast-paced industries, such as education, healthcare or sales, might work with a technology provider to coordinate complete platforms to meet their needs. These solutions can be a combination of existing and custom components. UC also includes users who simply adapt to the technology and alter their habits to use resources that are already available [source: Unified Communications Strategies].

It's the results of UC that are influential, not the semantics, so in 2006, the Unified Communications Strategies Web site put forth the following interpretation: "Communications integrated to optimize business processes" [source: Unified Communications Strategies]. It's vague, but in other words, it's not really a new form of communication. It's a way to combine older forms of communication to get better, more efficient results.

Whether you feel as if you can't escape from the office or you're more secure knowing you can be reached anytime and anywhere, UC is continuing to evolve. Let's take a closer look at its usage.