Unified Communications: The Future Is Now

As Web Applications prepares to head down south for Travolution’s Question Time, I thought we’d spend a minute looking at the topic of the debate, Unified Communications.

Unified Communications (UC) provides a centralised resource for all your methods of communication and simplifies and amplifies the way to connect to the people you need to. There are a number of accessible resources to find out more about UC, from providers like Microsoft and Cisco to relaxed discussions with real users that can be found in The Register. If you would like to find some sources in print, the March 2010 edition of Travolution (www.travolution.co.uk) featured the top 10 technologies of 2010 which discusses multiple facets of UC, and Computing magazine (www.computing.co.uk) did a series on Unified Communications throughout its March issues. To get the Web Applications take, visit the UC section of our website.

The premise upon which Unified Communications is based is simple, make it easier to get in touch with people you need to – and that is exactly what it does. UC has five key features: Unified Messaging, Presence, Video Conferencing, Collaboration and IP Telephony. Unified Communications is the integration of real-time communication services such as Instant Messaging, Presence Indication, Telephony, and Video Conferencing with non-real-time communication services like Voicemail, Email and Fax.

Unified Messaging (UM) is a centralised mailbox for all your messaging communications, such as email, instant messaging (IM), text messaging (SMS), group chat, fax and voicemail. The key enhancement UM provides is the time saved through getting more from your applications. Each component of UM is connected and stored in your mailbox so all correspondence is easily retrievable.  We recommend Microsoft Outlook as your Unified Messaging client.

Attendant Console with Presence StatusPresence is one of the most talked about and celebrated new features of Unified Communications. Intimately linked with Direct Line technology, Presence provides real-time information that indicates whether a person is free to take a call, receive an Instant Message (IM) or start a conference; this influx of information is vital to improving your business’ productivity. Presence is a key player to helping UC determine the best medium for establishing a connection. For example, if a person is at the office, and someone calls their mobile, UC software knows that you are at your desk and can automatically route that call from their mobile phone to their desktop phone for a cheaper rate. Common Presence status include: Available, Away, Busy, In a meeting and Do Not Disturb.  You can see to the left is an Attendant Console, the different coloured circles next to peoples name indicate their levels of availability, green = available, yellow = away or be right back, orange = busy/do not disturb/in a meeting.  You can also customise these settings to say out of the office, available but don’t IM, or anything you want to describe your status.

Video Conferencing is a great new addition to the network of features belonging to Unified Communications, integrating Web based conferencing with audio and video, providing an almost intimate setting for meetings. Video Conferencing is a real-time solution that allows people to communicate face to face despite vast distances, making it a great function for anyone who works from home or wants (or needs) to cut down the time they spend travelling to remote sites. It also provides a way to hold in-depth impromptu meetings across any distance. Video Conferencing is especially enhanced by presence and collaboration. The presence setting will update to indicate that you are in a conference, but it is collaboration which makes Video Conferencing truly exciting.

Collaboration is an extremely useful function stand-alone or in conjunction with Video Conferencing. Collaboration adds a massive amount of value to video conferencing and transforms video conferencing into a completely interactive experience with the added functionality of shared window viewing. With Collaboration you can be sure that the numbers on your screen are in fact the same as the numbers your counterpart has, no matter how different your interpretations. Each side of the video conference chooses which windows to share so that only pertinent information makes it into the conference, and your twitter feed will not interrupt a presentation.

The voice part of the equation, or IP telephony, is often the most critical element, and one that the majority of end-users organisations use as the basis for their initial UC roll-outs. IP telephony translates into voice conversations for the end user. Software-driven Voice over IP (VoIP) is widely heralded as the future of business voice communication. This is the solution that enhances communication for information workers, allowing them to start voice connections for the platform of whatever application they are working with, as well as receive calls when connected to a wide range of networks without a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VoIP also works with Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) or through a media gateway and Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTNs).

Unified Communications is truly the future of business correspondence and is one of the most exciting technical enhancements that companies are adopting. At Travolution’s Question Time we will be discussing the future of how businesses communicate and what the travel industry should be doing to mark its role as an early innovator. In case you haven’t seen the