No Standards -- But Plenty of Agendas -- in Unified Communications

There are no standards controlling unified communications. Until there are, deals -- such as the one announced this week between Polycom and Microsoft -- will have an extra layer of nuance as vendors vie to create the framework that eventually will be adopted by the entire industry.

By Carl Weinschenk | Posted Aug 10, 2010
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No umbrella set of unified communications standards exists. For that reason, deals by vendors, service providers and other members of the ecosystem have greater impact, since a successful play for market share will be more likely to affect the technical parameters used by other companies. In other words, if one vendor becomes so dominant that its approach becomes a de facto standard, other players would have to follow suit.

This is one reason that anything Microsoft does in such immature fields is big news. This week, the company and Polycom said they are deepening their relationship via a multiyear global agreement, under which they will integrate products and market them to the enterprise, small and medium-sized business (SBM) and government markets. The deal includes product development and marketing initiatives.

No Jitter's Melanie Turek says both companies will benefit. Polycom will be able to ride on Microsoft's heavy influence in the enterprise. Microsoft, in turn, will get access to Polycom's lineup of videoconferencing products. She points out that the Polycom products likely will be optimized for Microsoft Communications Server 14. She wonders – and IT managers should do the same -- whether Polycom's products will work as well in non-Microsoft shops.

This may be a boon to early adopters of the Microsoft platform, but "optimized" products always raise eyebrows for the rest of the market, of course: What are users of other UC products (from the likes of, say, Avaya, Cisco and IBM) to do if Polycom products won't perform as well for them as they will for their Microsoft-using competitors? Settle for less, or look at other videoconferencing vendors, such as Radvision and Tandberg -- which can be expected to have its own "optimization" issues, of course, given its ownership by Cisco.

The deal signals a push to UC. Light Reading's Carol Wilson lays out the deal and offers quotes from company officials suggesting that telecom companies are, in the words of Microsoft UC partner marketing group product manger Ashima Singhal, “the third leg of the stool” in delivering and managing the two vendors' products. Wilson writes that Microsoft will offer UC in two other ways: in a hosted environment and as a “multi-tenant cloud-based UC solution.”

The reaction of Forrester analyst Henry Dewing
to the deal raises interesting questions. He begins by pointing out that Polycom and Microsoft already have a close and long relationship. What, then, is new? Dewing suggests it is the goal of working together in a “strategic fashion.” The takeaway is that the relationship is moving from one based primarily on creating hardware and software to one that focuses on bringing products to market.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Dewing's post is at the end. He suggests that the agreement could be a key moment for the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF), a group formed earlier this year to create standards in the field. He points to a strategic alliance between HP and Vidyo announced in June as a similar step.

The question is whether agreements between two or a handful of companies that are UCIF members are fundamentally different from agreements from companies not in the consortium. In other words, is there a process by which the UCIF will take these agreements – or, to be more precise, the technical underpinnings upon which the marketing and development agreements are based -- and expand them into fully fledged standards that create a level playing field across the industry segment?

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