At its base, unified communications is a system that reveals when a user is online - allowing colleagues to talk to them through routes that can include instant messaging.
But UC is not yet one contact system to rule them all, and making a case for expenditure can be difficult as its benefits are not easily measurable in hard cash savings. Nevertheless, UC can have significant effects on business productivity.
A big advantage of UC is its potential for continuous, collaborative working in virtual teams, as staff can stay in contact via an instant messenger service, and even share and edit documents online during ad hoc conferences. Such tools are ideal for information technology (IT) development work, product management or sales teams, and to enable remote working.
UC is not a new concept. Until recently it was a market dominated by telecommunications companies such as Avaya, Siemens and Cisco. Now, though, business applications companies have moved into the space, including Microsoft with its Lync UC product, which has the advantage of email integration.
“Around four years ago it was more of an infrastructure sell. Today it is driven more by collaboration, with smartphones featuring heavily as people become more reliant on them for business,” says Dale Vile, research director at Freeform Dynamics, an analyst.
UC is being rolled out on to various devices such as phones, laptops and tablets. Staff, therefore, remain easily contactable and in a constant virtual office regardless of their physical location.
“Mobile UC offers companies the hope of keeping systems under control while providing advanced functionality,” says Ian Jacobs, principal analyst on enterprise telecoms at Ovum, an analyst.
Film production company Goldcrest is doing just that with its UC system from Avaya. The company uses UC as the basis of its communications infrastructure across its two central London locations. The system enables staff to use their iPhone or Android devices as an extension of their desk phone.
“It provides complete flexibility and allows staff to make calls on desk phones and have them put through to their mobiles if they need to transfer the call on the way to a meeting,” says Richard Barnes, Goldcrest’s head of IT.
There are, however, some serious issues for companies around UC deployments. Problems can arise when businesses neglect to address the potential strain on networks, leading to crashes as the bandwidth fails to cope with extra usage. Ensuring the network is up to speed, therefore, can be crucial.
Business must also train staff to take advantage of these new forms of communication. “Companies have to lead by example and have senior people conducting things like virtual meetings,” says Mr Vile.
Arguably, one of the problems with adopting UC is that people are stuck in the old mindset of communications, where staff take it for granted that they have various numbers and login details in order to contact people.
But Mr Vile says companies and employees gradually are beginning to expect more from their communication systems. “It will become much like the way you use your iPhone, where you pull up contacts and there are various ways of reaching that person,” he says.
“Telecom and IT companies increasingly will work together to make everything seamless, so it is just a case of pulling up a person’s details and the system doing all the behind-the-scenes routing work.”
Consolidation of communication platforms is likely to occur naturally. Ovum’s Mr Jacobs believes it is already happening as the smartphone becomes the primary form of business communication.
“Mobility is driving a lot of the thinking as to where UC is going over the next three years. Right now, companies are thinking about unifying everything, but eventually the desk phone will go as people are choosing to use their mobiles instead,” he says.
UC integration tools will also be rolled out into other areas of corporate systems beyond telephony. For example, it will be common practice to collaborate using Microsoft Word, by touching or clicking on a document containing “track changes”, which shows where a file has been edited, and viewing a contact pop-up of the person who made the correction, says Mr Jacobs.
“That is where we are going. The next version of Microsoft Lync will have those features. Conceptually it is the same idea everyone is driving toward,” he says.
Kathleen Hall is a reporter at Computer Weekly