At the moment, the unified communications market isn't really unified at all. No one vendor currently offers an application that encompasses the gamut of messaging and communication features that a unified system would ideally include. This often forces companies to purchase more than one application, which adds cost and complexity to the equation. As a result, these firms are still missing out on many of the benefits of a truly unified system.
That was the case for Ephraim Cohen, co-owner of the Fortex Group LLC, a small marketing and public relations firm in New York City. When it first opened for business in 2003, Fortex used Yahoo! for free e-mail and instant messaging. But it quickly became clear that the company would need a more secure and customizable application. So Cohen began researching options. "It was frustrating because no one has an all-in-one solution," he says. Furthermore, many of the applications out there were too expensive for Cohen's small start-up. Finally, Cohen settled on BlueTie Inc. for his company's e-mail and calendaring needs, on Teleo Inc. for VoIP, and on Trillion Digital Communications Inc. for instant messaging. Although each tool works well independently, "If one application could do all of it at a low cost, I would go with them," Cohen says.
In part because of the lack of one complete solution, integrating these applications with each other, as well as with systems already in place, can be a much greater obstacle than companies anticipate. When its 16-year-old PBX system began to fail, the law firm of Leonard, Street and Deinard, in Minneapolis, decided to replace it with an IP network. The firm turned to Avaya Inc., which helped create a messaging platform that includes VoIP, calendaring and Web conferencing. The system linked to the firm's Microsoft Outlook e-mail program without too much trouble, but integration -problems still plagued the rollout, says Carol Reitzel, the firm's telecom analyst. "We've had some struggles," she says. The new system "has increased the complexity of everything because it needs to be so deeply integrated into a multitude of other applications." For example, the law firm keeps track of all its phone calls through a billing program from Equitrac, but at first it wouldn't mesh with Avaya's software. It took a considerable amount of troubleshooting before the IT team could get things up and running. "Because things are no longer in silos, the interdependency makes it more complex to pinpoint and resolve issues," Reitzel says.
In addition, it's not cheap. The firm, which has 450 users of the new system, shelled out almost $1 million for the initial rollout, including consulting fees, installation, and unanticipated integration issues. As it turns out, it costs 3 percent more to maintain the new system than it did to maintain the old one.
Of course, the attorneys are thrilled with the new system, she adds. The firm has five offices with 190 lawyers in Min-ne-sota and Washington, D.C., and moving to VoIP puts everyone on a 4-digit dialing system. Calls that come into a lawyer's office can also ring through to his or her mobile phone. Employees can check voice mail from their e-mail inboxes, and e-mail (as well as access calendars, contact lists and other tools) from their voice mail. Rietzel claims that the ability to collaborate makes the rollout valuable, although "it would be nice to say that there will be a cost benefit. Our main focus is to provide improved client services."