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Unified Communications

Definition
Unified communications encompasses all forms of call and multimedia/cross-media message-management functions controlled by an individual user for both business and social purposes. This includes any enterprise informational or transactional application process that emulates a human user and uses a single, content-independent personal messaging channel (mailbox) for contact access.

 

Overview
Unified communications has repeatedly been the center of many discussions involving the future of communications. Unified communications encompasses a broad range of technologies and many potential applications. It is important to note that it is still in its infancy and many definitions have been used by the messaging industry. This tutorial will present one view of unified communications and present its appeal as a powerful mode of communication. The benefits to subscribers will be discussed along with considerations for service providers and the ways in which they will benefit from unified communications.

 

1. The Concept of Unified Communications

 

The essence of communication is breaking down barriers. In its simplest form, the telephone breaks distance and time barriers so that people can communicate in real time or near real time when they are not together. There are now many other barriers to be overcome. For example, people use many different devices to communicate (wireless phones, personal digital assistants [PDA], personal computers [PC], thin clients, etc.), and there are now new forms of communication as well, such as instant messaging. The unified communications concept involves breaking down these barriers so that people using different modes of communication, different media, and different devices can still communicate to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

 

Unified communications encompasses several communication systems or models including unified messaging, collaboration, and interaction systems; real-time and near real-time communications; and transactional applications. Unified messaging focuses on allowing users to access voice, e-mail, fax and other mixed media from a single mailbox independent of the access device. Multimedia services include messages of mixed media types such as video, sound clips, and pictures, and include communication via short message services (SMS). Collaboration and interaction systems focus on applications such as calendaring, scheduling, workflow, integrated voice response (IVR), and other enterprise applications that help individuals and workgroups communicate efficiently. Real-time and near real-time communications systems focus on fundamental communication between individuals using applications or systems such as conferencing, instant messaging, traditional and next-generation private branch exchanges (PBX), and paging. Transactional and informational systems focus on providing access to m-commerce, e-commerce, voice Web-browsing, weather, stock-information, and other enterprise applications.

2. Benefits to Subscribers

 

 

Today's subscribers live in multiple networks (see Figure 2). More and more subscribers belong to numerous electronic communities and have an ever increasing number of innovative communications devices to choose from, whether it is a mobile phone, PDA, pager, hand-held computer, or a wireless application protocol (WAP)–enabled device. With a wide range of services and devices at their disposal, greater demands are being placed on the subscriber in they way they manage their communications. Today's busy consumers want an intuitive, easy-to-use method for unifying their communications.

 

Unified communications provides control for the individual user. It can help to send and receive messages, whether they are voice, e-mail, or fax. It also will notify the user whenever mail arrives. The concept of notification is becoming a large part of messaging. Some people want to be reached at all costs, anywhere, at any time. Whether they are at home or on vacation, they want to be notified of messages. Others are more protective about their privacy. They do not want to be reached, for example, when they are sleeping or having dinner. Unified communications technology provides the power to reach people almost anywhere, at any time, and provides the flexibility to allow people to control when they can be reached. Subscribers can interface with messages how and when they want.

 

With unified communications, subscribers reduce the number of places they must check for incoming voice, fax, e-mail messages, and other media types. From a single interface, they can check for all messages.

 

Evolution to Unified Communications
A natural evolution in application value, which has built upon available technologies, has occurred in messaging (see Figure 3). Technologies exist that enhance the integration of voice mail and e-mail, such as text-to-speech software that converts e-mail into spoken words. For example, at the airport, a user could call in on a phone and hear e-mail messages, making it easy to reach important decisions without delay. Other enabling technologies, such as speech recognition, are becoming more reliable and cost-effective. For example, people who drive frequently will find speech recognition a particularly convenient interface, especially if it is used to dial numbers or navigate menu options.

 

Easy-to-use user interfaces are essential to accessing the unified mailbox. Whether from the phone or from any Internet-enabled device, the subscriber can navigate through a unified mailbox with ease and full control at all times (see Figure 4). Checking e-mail from the phone becomes intuitive, and, likewise, hearing voice messages from a PC becomes second nature.

Unified communications can be used as a business tool as well. It can provide efficient business communication or act as an interface to a 24-hour storefront. People can use the phone to get information or to make transactions. They can purchase merchandise or trade stock without talking to a live person. With the emergence of new technology, especially the Internet, the 24-hour storefront has flourished. More information can be accessed and more shopping can be done than ever before.

 

Understanding the needs of the diverse market segments is essential to the success of deploying unified communications to a market. By mixing and matching various unified communications applications, service providers can increase market penetration, maximize revenues, and stimulate interest for more unified communications functionality.

 

The Messaging-Savvy Subscriber
The premium-class subscriber will be one of the first to adopt fully enhanced unified communications. Whether these subscribers are heavy corporate messaging users or small office/home office (SOHO) business entrepreneurs, with unified communications they have a means of saving time and increasing productivity. With text-to-speech and automatic speech-recognition technology, subscribers are able to navigate through voice portals and to access a variety of information and message content from any phone. Using standard voice protocols, they are able to hear their voice messages on a PC or other devices. Future services can tie even more applications into the unified mailbox. Consumers can have their unified mailbox become a personal agent, sending personalized information and notification preset by the subscriber. Other capabilities include the ability to look up contact information in a wide variety of contexts, whether the information may be located in personal, corporate, or worldwide directories. For example, the traveling salesperson who may be delayed at an airport is still able to stay in touch and conduct business with the office and clients. With unified communications, the salesperson is able to check voice messages, e-mail, and faxes, conduct transactions with corporate enterprise servers, have access to calendars and scheduling, all from the convenience of a wireless phone, Web portal, or PDA.

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