Most organisations are unsure of the benefits of a unified communications (UC) implementation, according to a survey of 2008 enterprise networking plans by Forrester Research.

Fifty-five percent of the 2,187 North American and European companies queried for the State Of Enterprise Networks And Telecommunications: 2008 report said there was "confusion about the value" of unified communications for their company. Only 11 per cent of the firms had already deployed it, another 16 per cent were rolling it out and 57 per cent were evaluating or piloting it, Forrester found.

"We were not surprised," said Forrester analyst Ellen Daley, author of the survey's report. "There's been a 21 per cent increase in UC pilots since 2007 but no increase in firms buying UC. A lot of people are talking about UC, a lot more are tipping their toe in, but at the same time they're all saying they're not sure about the value," she says.

Daley says Forrester receives inquiries from clients regularly asking simply: What is UC?

"Because they're not able to define it very clearly for themselves and the supplier landscape is confusing, that translates to confusion about what it does for their company," Daley said. "It's hard to prove that return on investment right now."

Companies understand the components of unified communications - VoIP, unified messaging, presence, multimedia conferencing, collaboration, and so forth - but the value of the overall pitch is vague, Forrester found.

The impact on the growth of the unified-communications market will feel the uncertainty, Daley said. "We don't think there's going to be conversion of these UC evaluations and pilots into full-blown investments in the next 12 to 18 months," she says. "We think there's enough confusion in the marketplace on value, features and [marketing] that we're going to see very long evaluation and pilot periods."

Nonetheless, unified communications does have the potential to mirror the wireless email industry, said Daley. That was another tepidly received innovation that spawned RIM's now ubiquitous and seemingly indispensable BlackBerry.

But for now, unified communications is not the top priority for enterprises in 2008, with the report revealing mobility to be of paramount importance.

Sixty-four percent of respondents say that providing more mobility support to employees is a priority, with 23 per cent citing it as a critical priority. It will become incumbent on enterprises to embrace devices employees use for their personal lives and work them into the corporate culture, Daley said.

"They have to get their arms around them," as well as provide support for them and make decisions about how to handle device security, she added.

While one-third to over one-half of the firms surveyed already use in-house wireless LAN and public cellular data, the greatest interest in adoption lies with WiMAX (54 per cent), which only nine per cent of firms use at the moment.

Wireless email or BlackBerry and personalised contacts and calendar still top the list of mobile applications that are deployed fully at firms. However, customer-facing applications are gaining ground, as 12 per cent of firms are rolling them out and 27 per cent are evaluating or piloting them, Forrester found.