The top 5 issues for the UC market in 2011

For what seems like forever, unified communications (UC) has been trying to come of age, fighting the traditional technology battles of securing enterprise engagement on one side and navigating vendor issues on the other. In 2010, one analyst firm went so far as to characterize UC as a Ponzi scheme!

It seems clear that in 2011, unified communications will be about fighting harder than ever for positioning as a strategically important technology. Five factors will determine how UC vendors — and the UC market overall — fare in this battle in 2011. We’ll deal with them here in increasing order of importance.

5. The relationship between UC and the cloud. This took the number one spot on my list of top UC issues for 2010. UC and the cloud is an issue that might have created a strategic surge for the UC market, had it been exploited. The enormous potential of cloud computing as a promoter has been lost, because in 2010 cloud plans proceeded largely without any reference to UC. In CIMI Corp.’s list of top enterprise cloud-ready applications, UC fell in credibility in 2010. Where the cloud could have helped the UC market, it’s now more likely to hurt it, as we’ll see in a later point.

4. Increased “balkanization” of vendor positioning on UC. The market dynamic for 2010 has created a situation in which buyers report that they see two highly active UC vendors (Avaya and Microsoft) and a host of other vendors (including nearly all the major IT players) that offer UC tools as a part of a broader strategy, but are only pushing UC in that broad context. The situation is comparable to being able to buy milk only as a part of a larger shopping order; it makes it difficult to extract UC value propositions and consider the technology on its own merits.

3. The erosion of the UC power base within the enterprise. This issue arises in part from analyst and media skepticism over the value of unified communications and UC’s future role. In 2010, UC sponsors within enterprises faced stringent, often problematic return on investment guidelines from their CFOs. In 2011, expect to see many more IT projects presented for consideration and possibly less money overall available to fund them. Making the UC value story resonate with senior management has been challenging, which has only made the issues more complicated. UC advocates also report that the tendency to view UC as a part of a higher-level IT or collaborative strategy often weakens their own roles in the decision process.

Some of the problem with the UC power base in the enterprise stems from the fact that most UC requirements evolved from the “telecom” side of the enterprise networking team, meaning the organization that managed the PBX. Since implementing UC is an IT task, this created a need to transition both the power base and the requirements at the very inception of UC as a concept. It’s been exacerbated by the aforementioned balkanization of the UC space; every vendor type has its own set of internal sponsors, and UC values are spread across that large group.

2. The relationship between UC and social networking. This relationship is being thrust to the fore by the combination of tablet computing and ubiquitous broadband. UC is often seen as a kind of broadband-empowered voice strategy, an evolution from the days of telephony.

Social networks and broadband appliances combine to create an alternative framework for worker communication that has little to do with telephony at all, but does connect well with users who are increasingly dependent on social networks for their personal communication.

Vendors have been slow to grasp the symbiosis between UC and social networking, which has thus far limited the impact of social networking on UC projects. It’s not likely that the significance of “social UC” will be lost on those vendors with tablet plans, and we already know that Apple, Dell, Cisco, Google, Microsoft and RIM have both tablet strategies and UC aspirations. The question is whether UC will become simply a tablet app or remain an independent application space.

Now for the top issue facing unified communications in 2011 …

1. Exploding interest in enterprise mobility as a productivity strategy. While there’s nothing that says that UC has to be tied to phones and desktops, the evolutionary nature of many UC offerings tends to do just that. Enterprises now believe that mobility and tools to empower workers who move both within company facilities and on the road (or even work at home) present a key productivity opportunity. Because UC vendors and advocates have not exploited UC ties to this mobility surge, there’s a serious risk that mobility solutions will include communications and collaboration tools developed outside the UC framework and by vendors other than the UC market leaders.

All of the tension looming over the world of unified communications in 2011 is mirrored in the overall enterprise networking and IT spaces. With UC and the environments that must host it all in a state of flux, nearly anything could happen in 2011. That could be very good or very bad for vendors.