Ever since the modern-day category of unified communications (UC) first emerged over 20 years ago, both the technology itself and IT’s role in implementing and managing it has evolved at a rapid pace. From humble beginnings in traditional telephony technology to the cloud-based softphones we know today, changes in enterprise unified communications have been nearly constant.
As business continues to increasingly embrace technology, updates are occurring more and more rapidly. End users are the eventual beneficiaries of these innovations. IT, however, is the true protagonist of the drama – constantly playing catchup to manage the changes.
IT teams must architect and configure new UC systems, and then provide on-going support. Because of this, the constantly changing UC landscape can easily create employee and departmental fatigue for IT.
Understanding where telephony technology came from, where it’s headed, and how to proactively prepare for future changes is the best way to set your enterprise up for unified communications success without overburdening IT.
A Brief History of Enterprise Telephony Communications
Because there is still a decent amount of legacy technology in use today, it’s worth understanding the history of changes in enterprise unified communications. We can break down the evolution of enterprise telephony communications into four phases: traditional, VoIP, software-centric unified communications, and the cloud.
Phase One: Traditional
Before the term unified communications was coined, enterprise communications were all done through traditional private branch exchanges (PBXs). PBX systems were largely hardware-based and relied on proprietary technology from a handful of equipment manufacturers – based at first on copper-wire analog circuits, and then on “traditional” digital (pre-IP) technology.
At this point, most of the considerations for IT were about the equipment — with quality, reliability, and cost being the most important factors. Most often, each individual office location of an enterprise would make their own decisions about what equipment to source and deploy. This created a scenario where one global enterprise could have hundreds of different telephony solutions. End users in New York could have very different features through their Nortel phone than a user in Tokyo with a NEC phone.
While this scenario allowed localized IT teams to determine the best solution for their specific office, it had major drawbacks from an enterprise level. It was expensive to operate redundant infrastructure in hundreds of locations. Operational issues arose, from no centralized support for end users to headaches for the accounting team related to how and when to depreciate these extremely expensive assets. Global companies needed a better solution.
Phase Two: VoIP
The first big change to enterprise UC came about with the introduction of voice over IP (VoIP). Although this phase was also very hardware-driven, businesses now had a choice to either use old school equipment specific to telephony or use widely available standardized internet equipment. Compared to the new hardware introduced in this phase, traditional systems were expensive and difficult to manage.
VoIP had another advantage, too — it allowed businesses, in theory, to standardize their telephony solutions across all or most of their locations. This made management easier for IT while simultaneously improving the end user experience.
Although VoIP solutions had a software component, most VoIP providers like Cisco and Avaya were still hardware companies at their core during this phase. The considerations for IT continued to revolve around hardware like phones, devices, and room systems.
Phase Three: Software-Centric Unified Communications
The next significant change to UC occurred when Microsoft saw an opportunity for improvement and introduced the first fully software-based telephony solution — Office Communications Server 2007. This allowed businesses to truly standardize their telephony solutions for the first time, as it was no longer constrained by hardware requirements.
This phase saw many changes in and of itself. This is the point at which enterprise unified communications started to emerge in the form we know today, with a rich user experience including dial-in audio conferencing, desktop sharing, and persistent group chat. Several years later, this solution became Lync Server, and just a few years after that Skype for Business was introduced.
Although most enterprises are still in this phase today, Microsoft has announced end of life plans for Skype for Business Online in July of 2021. In addition, there is on–going speculation that the on-premises based Skype for Business Server 2019 will not receive another upgrade and will soon also find its own end of life date. This, plus the rapid shift to remote work, is causing enterprises to move to the next phase of UC.
Phase Four: The Cloud
Cloud-based solutions are the name of the game in the current phase of unified communications. Although unified communications as a service (UCaaS) has already been around for at least five years, this phase is still in its infant stage.
Cloud communications offers many advantages to IT, including less need to maintain hardware like gateways and SBCs that lives on-premises or in data centers. Additionally, the technology platform is often less expensive than phase three options.
However, fully cloud-based telephony solutions with phone numbers provided by Microsoft 365 Business Voice or Zoom Phone tend to be more expensive than traditional carrier contracts. One upside of direct routing through these solutions is that businesses can disintermediate the service from the phone number.
Phase three has not ended by any means. The transition to phase four has been elongated, largely due to a paced adoption of this new technology. Additionally, many core systems were built to work with on-prem unified communications such as fax, alarms, elevators, emergency beacons, and factory floor systems. All of these must be migrated to work with UCaaS, not just gateways and SBCs.
Despite the slow adoption, IT teams need to be prepared for the next shift in enterprise voice strategy as technology continues to rapidly evolve.
What’s Next for Enterprise Unified Communications
Phase four of unified communications is still coming into its own, and phase three isn’t even over yet. As true as that may be, IT needs to stay on their toes to keep up with all the changes in UC technology — and to make sure their organization will be set up for long term success in this area.
Going Mobile with 5G
A number of key factors are putting the emerging 5G standard into either the competitive platform category or at the very least into the coopetition category versus UC. Even before the mass migration to work from home brought about by COVID-19, many office workers relied primarily on their mobile phones for one-to-one conversations, switching only to UC for conferencing.
Other factors such as carriers competing with UC providers for dialing plans, IT need for rapid and cheap UC on-prem to cloud transformations, carriers investing significantly in 5G infrastructure, and overall commodity price pressures of phone systems are driving 5G to the forefront.
It’s still likely too early to predict what the end-effect of an emerging 5G system will have on the cloud phone portion of UCaaS systems. However, it’s safe to say that phone minutes and usage will continue to shift from PC endpoints to mobile 5G devices. This will, in turn, create the need for subsequent adjustments to the way that the UCaaS vendors enable the “unified” nature of their UC systems.
Less Calls, More Video Conferences
It’s not just new technology that’s changing enterprise unified communications. The preferences of end users are changing, too. With the introduction of easy-to-use video conferencing platforms like Zoom, end users are embracing video over audio. Even before the pandemic, video conferencing was beginning to overtake audio-only meetings.
In a 2019 study conducted by Gartner, respondents said they spend 18% of their time in audio-only meetings and 19% of their time in meetings over audio and video. And according to the recent Visual Communications and Collaboration 2020-21 Research Study from Nemertes Research, the average number of weekly video meetings across responding organizations went from 23.2 before COVID-19 to 68.1 since the pandemic started.
Does this mean that telephony is no longer needed? No. Instead, this suggests that a primary focus for IT going forward should be on enabling video conferencing. In the study from Nemertes, 82% of respondents said that video conferencing will be the number one area where IT will increase spending. A secondary focus, for at least a portion of the industry, will also be on non-information worker-oriented scenarios such as contact centers, analog phone and fax systems, and legacy paging systems.
How IT Can Stay One Step Ahead of Changes in Enterprise Unified Communications
Implementing and managing all of these never-ending innovations in enterprise UC can cause IT teams to feel overwhelmed with constant change. And if IT is forever playing catch up, this fatigue may never subside. Through our 10 plus years of experience helping companies through UC transformations, we’ve learned some ways that IT can shift from a reactive to a proactive dynamic with its end users and lines of business.
Initiate On-Going Communication with End Users
One of the best ways to stay on top of changes that may come to your enterprise UC strategy is through communication with your end users. It’s all too easy for IT to implement new UC technology and then only support end users when they have issues. But the habits and preferences of end users can easily change without IT noticing.
The key is to set up a communication channel to continually learn about the preferences and needs of your end users. This can be done via regular end user surveys, employee advisory councils, or even company intranets and forums. By staying in tune with the needs of end users, IT can proactively forecast when they will next need to make major changes.
Create a Global Inventory of UC Assets
Any time IT decides to make an update to their UC strategy, getting a bird’s eye view of the current situation is imperative. By creating a global inventory of all the technology that’s currently in use — and updating it on a regular basis — IT teams will be set up to pivot to new updates as quickly as possible.
Make a global inventory of the current telephony/UC equipment and service providers for each of your office locations. This should include carrier contracts, gateways, SIP trunks, SBCs, devices, and platforms. This inventory can be used to determine whether to continue using existing solutions or if there is a business case to migrate to the latest technology.
When thinking about how to stay on top of enterprise UC strategy, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees that are currently looming in front of you. But it’s important to keep in mind that while you may be migrating to the latest and greatest technology right now, it probably won’t be long before new innovations in the UC and collaboration arena have IT teams thinking about yet another change.
Because of this, it’s imperative to implement your cloud communications and collaboration strategy in a way that is conducive to both current and future needs. Our Unified Communications RightTrack™ can help you evaluate the best cloud-based UC system for your needs. When you’re ready to make the migration, our Cloud Communications Transformation service can help your enterprise move from an older UC system to a modern, cloud-based UCaaS solution that will position you for success now — and in the future.