Guest Column | May 25, 2009

Unified Communications Creates New VAR Business Solutions

todd_landry

Written by: Todd Landry, senior VP of product management and business development, Sphere Communications

The Evolution Of IP-based Communications
One of the hottest terms in the communications industry is unified communications. While the widespread industry use of the term is relatively new, the capabilities are most certainly not. The technology started at least a decade ago, but unified communications wasn’t everyday technology then. Capabilities such as text messaging, instant messaging, and presence detection were not relevant at that point.

 

A common infrastructure based on IP (Internet protocol) allowed the formation of new types of global communications. The Web and related technologies make it easier for people and companies to share information and enable worldwide electronic commerce. In addition to those IP capabilities, e-mail quickly became one of the most common forms of communication. Productivity-enabling technology (i.e. instant messaging, text messaging) was introduced to most businesses via the Internet and suddenly appeared on user desktops. The expansion of communication methods that leverage a global IP infrastructure opens up multiple opportunities for VARs and their customers.

Changing Business Communications
For most businesses, people-to-people communication is one of the most critical elements of daily business transactions – both inside and outside the company. When you consider that virtually no businesses operate without telephones, it illustrates how critical that type of interaction has become. Real-time communications solutions have converged different forms of interaction and collaboration, offering voice, text messaging, and even video as fully integrated solutions. These applications provide a variety of ways to retrieve and exchange voice messages, with the most common being unified messaging, where voice mail messages are simply dropped into your e-mail inbox. An integrated video capability provides visual communications options and enhances the business customer’s user experience.

Informing business customers about the availability or status of another person to receive calls, e-mails, and other forms of communication is an important element of the latest unified communications solutions. This type of system allows users to see if a person down the hall is on the phone or in a meeting, and gives others the ability to select the proper form of communication to reach them. For example, looking at my phone interface, I can tell if the person I want to call is on the phone. Rather than calling and leaving a voicemail, I may decide to send a text message. This provides alternatives that save time and expedite communications with colleagues or customers.

For most users, this concept defines unified communications. Many of the current systems simply combine multiple communications functions in some manner. While there are certainly benefits to doing this, most unified communications solutions are still built in a monolithic and proprietary approach. That limits the ability to easily customize them for specific business purposes and severely restricts businesses and VARs from tying communications services into other applications. Solutions providers should look for the manufacturers that provide open systems and allow application integration.

Unifying Business Communications
Many customers are employing new back office applications such as CRM (customer relationship management) and SCM (supply chain management) to create increased business efficiency and productivity. As a result, their employees find themselves utilizing multiple tools that help them with day-to-day business activities. These back office systems are data-oriented and utilized in ways that allow information to be extracted or input in a variety of ways. The real opportunity for unifying business communications with these systems is very broad — and the latest unified communications applications allow for many options.

For example, a user wants to contact a client and views the client’s information on her screen using CRM software. She can contact this client, and with communications integral to the application, can simply click on a “Call” button within the CRM application and the call is initiated. She may need some information from another employee at her company before calling the client – and can see the workgroup members associated with this customer on her CRM application interface. Looking at the workgroup list, she can see if the person who has the information is on the phone. Rather than call and get voicemail, she clicks on the name and sends a text message. If that person is available, she simply clicks on the name to call. Additionally, if both employees have video capabilities, the system can automatically invoke a video session on the screen. All this occurs right from the CRM screen, and the employee no longer needs to look up numbers or push extra keys on the desktop telephone to initiate communication.

The latest business communications technologies are software-based business applications. They provide all the same functionality that you expect of traditional PBX (private branch exchange) systems and integrate the latest forms of communications (e.g. text messaging, unified messaging, video). However, the developers of these newer systems are focused on a services-oriented approach rather than traditional telecom hardware systems. Expect to soon see an open services approach in the design — one that will allow easy integration of software into the business processes and related business applications.

Because of this open approach, VARs, integrators, and ISVs (independent software vendors) can leverage these easy-to-use communications services to deliver business-centric communications services. Business users will notice that the process of initiating communications (or making the decision on which communication method to use) is now embedded within the context of the business applications they use.

Integrate Web Services And SOA
Open communications services engines are designed to fit well into the SOAs (services oriented architectures) VARs and businesses are employing. Industry standards allow these services to be easily utilized by ordinary Web and application development tools. These open services allow VARs to provide powerful and unique feature sets for the vertical industries they focus on. One common thread of SOA is the use of XML (extensible markup language) technology, where the services of software based IP PBX and unified communications software applications are enabled through the use of a WSDL (Web services definition language). Web resources are available to define existing services [http://www.w3.org/TR/wsdl] and provide additional details on SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) [http://www.w3.org/TR/soap/]. Application and Web developers like this natural approach that does not require them to become telecom protocol experts. SOA enables rich communications options for customers’ business applications, and the communications services engine handles these services on their behalf.

Getting Into the Game
The Internet not only changed the way we communicate, but also transformed where we can communicate. We are no longer tied to computer hardware or telephone lines with the ability to contact others using high-speed IP network connectivity combined with software and web services. As a business application, unified communications provides PBX features and functionalities at our fingertips, but not literally tied to them.

Businesses are starting to realize the value of unified communications with software solutions that reduce and eliminate dependence on costly hardware. Unified communications will simply show up in a variety of business applications – capabilities to communicate provided directly within the systems you use everyday. VARs need to gain experience with these new open services, utilizing the latest simplified tools and applications. Providing communications solutions that give your customers a unique opportunity to optimize the efficiency of their business processes lets you stand apart from a basic PBX reseller. Those solutions also will bring long-term value to your customers.

Todd Landry is senior VP of product management and business development with Sphere Communications, a software developer of IP PBX and Services Oriented Unified Communications technology. You can reach him at tlandry@spherecom.com For more information on Communications Web Services and to download software developer tools go to: http://www.spherecom.com/sphericall_web_services.php

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