How Unified Communications Works

Cell Phone Image Gallery Real-time delivery is at the heart of unified communications. See more cell phone pictures.
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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.

The Role of Unified Communications in Business

A doctor video conferencing away from the work area is an example of unified communications.
A doctor video conferencing away from the work area is an example of unified communications.
B Busco/Getty Images

Unified communications aims to overcome the flaws of business communication, with considerable payoff. Many of the benefits to a well-planned UC system are outlined below.

  • Lower expenses -- The initial investment in new technology can seem overwhelming, but existing infrastructure might be sufficient or easily modifiable. Companies can eliminate redundant resources, and some companies, such as Google, even provide some UC solutions for free.
  • Maximize work time -- UC can allow you to work with people based on availability and reduce time wasted playing phone tag.
  • Minimize travel -- Why squander the financial and environmental resources to fly or drive to a meeting that can take place over video conferencing?
  • Access with a single sign-on -- With single sign-on ability, you don't have to worry about keeping track of multiple usernames and passwords.
  • Work anywhere -- UC also lets you keep in touch with the office when travel is unavoidable, when the kids are home sick or even when an emergency comes up during vacation.

[source: Microsoft]

And how does all of this take place? Most old-school professional communication happens via messages, which sit on a phone or computer until they're retrieved. It's convenient for the recipient, in part because messages don't demand an immediate response (or sometimes, any response at all). Senders, however, don't know if the correspondent is unavailable, or if they're simply being ignored. Messages are also dependent on the delivery method: You can call the desk phone instead of the cell phone, and when the message is received, it might be too late.

Real-time electronic communication is intended to reduce or eliminate the lag between a message being sent and received, using functions such as chat, video conferencing and VoIP (voice over Internet protocol -- basically, talking on the phone over an Internet connection). Speech recognition applications can be used with text-based, real-time methods to convert a dictated (spoken) message into text that can be read on the recipient's screen [source: Microsoft].

We've seen what UC can do for a business, but like any worthwhile investment, there are considerations. Continue reading to find out about some of the problems that can be incurred as a result of UC.

Unified Communications: Control, Latency and Presence

Too many applications can lead to communication latency.
Too many applications can lead to communication latency.
B Busco/Getty Images

Up until now, unified communications might seem like a no-brainer. For most organizations, significant results can be achieved with minimal effort -- on the surface, anyway. These cool features aren't without complications, and the tech sector has worked for decades to overcome them. For example, the data industry faces the hurdle of routing VoIP calls from the Internet to a regular phone number as smoothly as land lines. Though hosted VoIP services don't provide call control (the name for call routing, both behind the scenes and on the consumer's end), some interfaces allow users to control phone calls from the computer desktop. According to Dave Gilbert, founder of call control app maker SimpleSignal, research showed that a lot of VoIP users ignored familiar features like voice messaging, call forwarding and speed dial because the programs were confusing and often required a Web browser to run in the background, making it easy to overlook calls and other notifications [source: TMCnet]. Despite these issues, Google's vice president of product management, Bradley Horowitz, told eWeek the goal of telephony is to be seamless, which is essential if it's to play a critical role in UC [source: Boulton].

Face a desktop cluttered with all the UC applications we've discussed, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. This can lead to communication latency, which analyst Sagee Ben-Zedeff describes as the "negative effect on our effectiveness that is caused by having to deal with too many means of communications. By using one platform, with one interface, to access all those means, either explicitly or implicitly, that latency is reduced if not eliminated" [source: Ben-Zedeff]. An interesting effect of overcoming communication latency is the expectation that contacts will be available. Some chat and message platforms, such as Google Chat, allow status messages that indicate availability and willingness to talk, which is known as presence information. To alleviate privacy concerns, many apps also allow status blocking, so contacts can't see if someone is online [source: Good].

You may use a smartphone to juggle telephone calls, text messaging, e-mail and Web browsing. How do they fit into unified communications?

Smartphones as Unified Communications Tools

A visitor examines an HTC smartphone at the CeBIT Technology Fair in Hannover, Germany.
A visitor examines an HTC smartphone at the CeBIT Technology Fair in Hannover, Germany.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

An early draft of this article was researched and typed on a smartphone. New versions were sent via e-mail and immediately arrived back on the phone, in the e-mail inbox. Anytime the author made changes or found new research, the most recent update could be retrieved at any time, not just on the phone but on any computer with Internet access. A writer interacting with her own words isn't the same as tracking down a friend or conducting a business meeting, but the ease and convenience of instant text-based communication can blur the line. The phone in this scenario proved to be invaluable for a writer who spends several hours a day on public transportation.

The smartphone is making strides in its reputation as an inexpensive solution for a communications platform. In addition to a smartphone's telephone functions, standard features usually include e-mail, text/SMS messaging, e-mail and Web browsing. Smartphones also boast an address book, which doesn't sound impressive -- maybe it conjures imagery of a grubby little pad of paper forever lost in the kitchen junk drawer. But smartphones are a key platform for social networking features, and the more we use them, the more useful the address book becomes. Contact information from a lot of social applications, such as Facebook, can be synced on the go.

Smartphones are loaded up with social networking programs, features that blur the line between business and personal interest, such as Google Apps, and intellectual property saved as data. Communications providers realize that their target market is already accustomed to (or dependent on) using smartphones and are making the most of the opportunity. In some cases, existing users don't even need to invest in new hardware. German firm ANDTEK provides UC solutions that allow companies to access all of their business functions from any smartphone that meets current technological standards, without extensive modifications [source: PRLog].

So, once you've got your pocket-sized device filled with confidential business secrets and sensitive contact information, how can you possibly carry it around? Well, some mobile phone manufacturers are aggressively pursuing business customers with high-tech security features to protect all that valuable data. The Nokia E71, for example, features data encryption for the phone's internal memory and removable memory cards. The Apple iPhone can be locked or erased remotely if it's lost or stolen. LG's eXpo has fingerprint-based security [source: Weinschenk]. As the smartphone's ability increases to perform most of the communications tasks of a desktop computer, don't overlook its potential as an integral part of business communications.

Professional dependence on UC is pushing the technology to new and interesting places. On the next page, we'll discuss why local data storage might be going the way of standard messaging.

Unified Communications: Beyond the Office

Although users might not realize it, many Google Apps are dependent on cloud computing.
Although users might not realize it, many Google Apps are dependent on cloud computing.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

In the late 2000s, unified communications experts were predicting growth, yet they still were discussing the concept as if it was theoretical. Microsoft's offerings were mostly existing or updated products that were rebranded and repackaged like comprehensive solutions, as noted in an October 2007 Wired article that called UC a "'Wouldn't it be nice if…' proposition" [source: Sloan].

Often, businesses found hybrid systems best suited their needs, combining products they already owned with new investments, and working with different manufacturers accustomed to maximizing marketability. In 2006, for example, IBM updated its Sametime instant messaging system to better integrate with Microsoft office tools, though Microsoft had also attempted to bring Sametime users to Microsoft's competing platform, Live Communications Server [source: Perez].

As we wonder how the data we've been discussing comes and goes, some of these same companies are working on solving those problems. Cloud computing, a system in which applications, files and data reside remotely on a centralized network or computer server, is another example of computers' ability to handle communications remotely. Cloud computing allows users to increase productivity while using simpler desktop computers or mobile hardware unburdened by extraneous features. Like UC, the relevance of cloud computing depends on impact: the financial benefit and end results [source: Burton].

Cloud computing was conceived in 1964, but it only came to light about the same time as UC [source: Burton]. New Internet Computer, an early provider of cloud computing, launched in 2000 but shuttered three years later; competitors such as Microsoft found more success [source: PCWorld]. Service-based cloud computing's pay-as-you-go and subscription models are dependent on access to fast and reliable Internet -- at the time, a major downfall -- but UC still showed promise because of its flexibility.

Both technologies aim to streamline, which makes cloud computing a natural storage solution for UC. Companies like IBM, traditionally a provider of hardware and software, compete with the likes of Verizon, best known for its phone and Internet service. Google Apps are some of the best known cloud computing assets, in part because Google's programs are popular among non-business users, too. Even frequent users might not realize that Google Apps are dependent on cloud computing [source: Boulton]. Amazon offers a similar service called EC2.

Since clouds aren't under an organization's oversight and control, the technology's newfound popularity raises security concerns, but some claim the popularity of social networking has helped calm such fears [source: Greene, Boulton]. Read on to see how else UC and social media have mutually beneficial effects.

Unified Communications and Social Media

Twitter's Web site is displayed on a mobile phone in Newcastle, Australia.
Twitter's Web site is displayed on a mobile phone in Newcastle, Australia.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Social media credits a lot of its breakthroughs to unified communications. UC helps blur the line between our personal and professional contacts. We might use LinkedIn to keep tabs on colleagues or search for jobs; Facebook friend lists are often full of casual acquaintances, friends and family. If you spend time cultivating your networks, whether it's for personal (primarily social) or professional (primarily work or education) reasons, you probably give some thought as to how each of your relationships fits into your life.

"Social media tools have rapidly moved from being the preferred communication method of millennials to the standard by which enterprise workers and customers can quickly and freely connect," said Mark Straton, Siemens Enterprise Communications Group's senior vice president of marketing, voice and application solutions. At VoiceCon 2009, Straton said that social networks will be enhancing Siemens' capabilities; competitors such as Cisco Systems are working on similar projects [source: Weinberger]. In other words, your participation in social media technology might soon become a work requirement, if it's not already.

UC's influence on social media has also inspired more contact options. We have a greater variety of channels and networks through which we can announce our whereabouts, activities and thoughts; Twitter tweets and Facebook status updates are the social equivalent to business users' presence information [source: Ben-Zedeff]. We can initiate communication based on context, even without direct contact information. We'll approach business acquaintances through LinkedIn, for example, while a social situation is Facebook's territory. This phenomenon helps explain why the effects of communication latency are particularly prescient in social media, although Sagee Ben-Zedeff calls it social network fatigue [source: Ben-Zedeff].

A friend wants to invite you to a party, so he calls. You miss the call, so he texts and e-mails. This friend also needs to boost his portfolio for a job he's trying to get, so he requests a recommendation through LinkedIn. The day's tally: four rapid-fire pings to your smartphone from one guy. UC is perceived to be efficient because of its ease of use and potential for instant responses. This example's easy and instant, but is it more efficient? Do we really need a bigger communications buffet? And aside from cutting off high maintenance friends or shutting off your social networks, is there a better way?

Perhaps not yet. Ben-Zedeff argues that since social networks tend to be specific in scope and purpose, the development of new networks with new goals, though overwhelming and somewhat annoying, is actually justified [source: Ben-Zedeff]. The upside to social media is that you can pick and choose how people can contact you, which news feeds you read and which applications you install on your phone; it's safe to guess that's not the case when you're at the office and your paycheck depends on your availability.

Some view UC as an all-in-one tech solution, while others perceive it as pervasive. Regardless of how you feel, the communications industry claims it's here to stay. It's in the clouds, after all. And it might even be in your pocket. On the next page, you'll be able to read lots more about UC and its related technology.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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