24 Mar 2014
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Unified Communications: Dialling in mobility and video

By Heather Wright

Demands from employees for mobility and flexible work spaces is driving adoption of unified communications solutions in the New Zealand market - Heather Wright dials in the views of local experts.

Communication – both internal and external – may be critical for pretty much every business, but it is mobility which is proving to be a key driver for unified communications in New Zealand at the moment.

Danny Meadows, Westcon New Zealand vendor business manager for unified communications says demand for unified communications is high, with end users driving the technology uptake.

“There are two key areas firing up, and one is mobility for end users,” Meadows, who handles Avaya, Jabra and Active Communications for Westcon, says.

“Any business with outbound sales staff is a key target for mobility. If those staff are at their desk, you could argue that it’s wasted time,” Meadows says.

As a user of UC, Meadows says he finds it invaluable that he can see live presence, and that others can see whether he’s in a meeting, travelling to a meeting – and therefore potentially able to be interrupted – and so forth. “It allows far better use of my time,” he adds.

But mobility is about more than just straight-out efficiency. Meadows says with competition for valuable employees hotting up, the ability to offer flexible working conditions – working from home part of the time for example – is becoming increasingly important.

“Those two topics are number one: mobility and flexibility,” Meadows says.

Frazer Scott, Microsoft New Zealand director of marketing and operations, agrees. He says as companies recruit younger generations, flexible work styles – or as Scott refers to it, ‘the modern work space’ – is what is expected, and that requires solid unified communications.

Employees expect to be able to work outside the office, seamlessly. Adds Tom Batcheler, Microsoft product marketing manager in the Office business, “It’s part of a much larger conversation around working from anywhere.”

Scott says Microsoft is seeing a lot of New Zealand organisations ‘rapidly embracing unified communications or very keen to embrace it’.

“The consumerisation of IT is driving integration of mobile technologies and allowing us wot work anywhere, anytime, really empowered by UC. It’s a big growth area for us.”

Scott notes that New Zealand is one of Microsoft’s leading countries worldwide for Lync adoption. “We’re seeing cut through from the very largest enterprises to small start ups.”

Batcheler adds that the ultimate vision is a completely seamless unified experiences over every device, where users can not only communicate via voice, IM or video, and see presence, but also collaborate, sharing desktop screens to mobile devices and so on, without the need to call up phone numbers, mobile numbers, email addresses.

“Swapping business cards is so antiquated,” Scott quips. “It’s about multi-faceted presence, and being able to connect wherever in the world you are.”

Last July, Gartner noted in its Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications that the enterprise UC market ‘is now considered by Gartner to be entering the early mainstream adoption phase’.

The research firm noted that unified communications applications are increasingly being integrated or offered in concert with collaboration applications to form unified communications and collaboration (UCC) and in some cases, being integrated with business applications and workflows, something Gartner calls communications-enabled business processes (CEBPs).

Cisco and Microsoft topped the magic quadrant as leaders, with Avaya and Siemens Enterprise Communications also making the leaders category.

Challengers included Alcatel Lucent, IBM, NEC and Huawei, with Aastra and StoreTel making it as niche players.

The mid-market contact centre

While mobility appears to be the biggest driver locally, there are other forces at play. Meadows says the mid market contact centre is a hot area at the moment.

“The large insurance companies, councils and big enterprises have had the contact centres and unified communications for a long time.

But there’s a big requirement in the mid market for solutions that may not be quite as complex but can offer things such as social media integration and email queuing. Essentially becoming true contact centres, rather than call centres.

“The big organisations like IAG, the police, State... have enterprise grade platforms. But in the SMB and mid market, the offerings available have previously been quite basic and you had to buy third-party offerings like Zeacom to enhance the offering of, say, Avaya.

“Now, vendors have taken a lot of the technology from the enterprise platforms and shrunk it down and applied it to mid-market offerings – and there’s a wide market for that, especially in New Zealand.”

Meadows notes Microsoft’s strong play for the market with Lync, particularly with last year’s release of Lync 2013 and its improvements. “The licensing is very easy, and it links into Exchange, which 90% of customers are using, so it’s a considerable threat to traditional [unified communications voice] players.”

He adds that traditional players have moved rapidly to shore up their offerings.

Back in June 2012, Avaya acquired Radvision, a leading provider of videoconferencing and telepresence technologies over IP and wireless networks.

“Most of the traditional unified communications vendors are making sure they’re able to hold their own as Microsoft comes into the voice market.”

Gartner, in its June 2013 report, Critical Capabilities for Unified Communications, says most unified communications vendorscan provide all the real-time communications tools in UC suites, including IM, voice, telephone, videoconferencing, web conferencing and desktop sharing.

“The competitive challenge is increasingly shifting toward awareness and leadership through the marketing of capabilities.”

“Most suppliers can offer a complete, or nearly complete, set of UC functions with their own technologies; however, the need to coexist and integrate with partners and competitors is essential for many organisations to develop their unified communications and collaboration strategies without using a rip-and- replace approach,” the report notes.

Hear me, see me... On the videoconferencing front, Meadows says while video integration has been steady for room based systems, video has been lacking for mobile phones, laptops and tablets.

“Part of that is a cultural barrier – staring into the screen is quite different to talking on the phone to someone.

"But there is also a technological barrier in that it has to be exceptionally easy for anyone to use,” he says.

Vendors are now offering device agnostic solutions which enable users to send a meeting request to anyone in their contacts list, and the contacts can click to join the meeting, irrespective of what device they’re using – and without the need to download clients or dial bridge numbers.

“We’re seeing a lot of uptake [for Avaya’s solution],” Meadows notes. He adds that Skypes use in the consumer market will also help address the cultural barrier for video.

His views are backed by Gartner, which noted in its Critical Capabilities for Unified Communications report that desktop videoconferencing is an increasingly key component of UC solutions, as is the integration of desktop solutions with room-based and telepresence solutions.

“The ability to provide some UC components as on-premises-based, integrated with others in a cloud service, will be key during the next three to five years,” the report notes.

“Organisations need elasticity in their UC solutions to meet employee needs, while balancing head count fluctuations. Cloud-based UC has more elasticity than on-premises."

Gartner also noted, this time in That 3D video telepresence and social co-browsing – or ‘the collaborative sharing of the same Web space with one or more parties from a social network’ – are heading down the track towards us. Meadows cautions that that conversation for resellers is now more complex.

“Mid market solutions have become more feature rich, and that means they’re more complex to sell. The older systems were much more basic, and easier to sell. So now [resellers] are having to invest more time in technical training and enablement.”

Westcon runs about 12 to 15 training enablement courses a year, across sales, technical and pre-sales, and demand for the courses is high, Meadows says. “We pretty much pack out every session we run.”

Meadows urges resellers to stay on top of the latest developments in unified communications, saying end users are more self-educated.

“Resellers who fall behind will rapidly find themselves out of date and their customers will leave them behind.”

Upgrade option

Despite all the positives, Meadows says unified communications is still ‘a bit of a tough sell at the moment’.

He attributes that to the economy still not quite being back to where most people want it to be.

“But there’s the argument that it’s as good as it’s going to get, so it’s time to get on with it. There is a lot of optimism about 2014 and we are seeing companies that have been sweating their assets during the hard times becoming more open to having the conversation about replacing their aging systems.”

Both Meadows and Scott say there are plenty of customers sitting on aged systems – including some that are no longer supported because they’re so old. “We’re coming across more and more of them,” Meadows says.

“They’ve weathered the economic storm, but now the business risk is becoming untenable – if their [phone] system falls over, getting an engineer in and getting it repaired could see them potentially not contactable for a few days. That’s a risk businesses can’t afford.”

Adds Scott: “As companies look to retire their old assets, UC becomes a very compelling option from a cost and installation side. But first and foremost, it enables the modern workplace.”

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