I suppose that at some point workers on a geological dig will discover an ancient stone tablet on which is etched the message 'this will be the year of unified communications'.
UC, for those who have managed to avoid this perennial bridesmaid technology, threatens to bring together modes of communication such as voice, email, IM, SMS and so on, together with the means of detecting users' locations and preferred means of contact, so long as appropriate permissions have been granted. It has been so long in the coming and so often written about, analysed and otherwise pundit-ed that it might well prove my theory that the moment industry watchers stop predicting its arrival, the long-prognosticated success of a technology finally becomes reality.
A new survey by Orange Business Services based on the responses of 600 CIOs does a good job in bringing out current perceptions of UC, including the interesting finding that many users believe a mobile handset will be the ultimate base destination for UC consoles. But as OBS's solutions marketing senior manager Michael Burrell told me in a (good, old-fashioned POTS) telephone call, it remains a market for what Gartner would call "early adopters", the brave minority who test the technology at the sharp end of business. "We're still in that phase, at the beginning of the beginning but eventually there will be [near-universal] click-to-call/conference/web-conference and so on," he concludes.
Just six per cent of respondents have deployed UC but 15 per cent are trialling or evaluating and another four in 10 are looking into the area. That's close to two in three taking UC seriously as an option and indicates that it should at some point become a staple of business life. UC's proposition is that we can become universally connected in a smarter way than being constantly on a mobile push-email system like a BlackBerry and then being re-routed to a more convenient device. "Call me on the landline," we say. "I'm at my desk/working from home." Or else we say, "Drop me an email I'm busy". All this is oafish and UC says we can do better.
With IP in situ as an enabling communications transport and a legion of failures to look back on for development planning fodder, I suspect that this could be yet another market that sees the platform heavy-lifting built by minions and the rewards go to Microsoft and partners. Office Communications Server is becoming a sleeper success story and extends Microsoft's critical desktop stronghold. Microsoft can afford to almost give away OCS because it desperately needs to perpetuate Office, which is under siege by an army of mostly web-based insurgents like Google. For users, OCS offers a familiar bridge to the new world of communications. Through Orange and many others, Microsoft has the wherewithal to quietly make UC a mainstream reality.
Still, UC will need managing. The constant hum of working activity rises an octave and there are very real dangers of living in a world where we are -- dread phrase -- 'always on'. There will need to be lessons in switching off. But UC is coming and probably quicker than most of us would predict.