Unified communications, or UC, is an undefined concept involving the integration of several different communication formats into a single, centralized platform. These formats include, but aren’t limited to, voice communication on landlines and cell phones, email, text messaging and video messaging. There is no quantifiable definition for UC, as the concept emerges as a different strategy for different entities. The overall goal of seamless, real-time communication, however, is almost always the universally desired outcome. Although the concept of unified communications existed before, it was experimental and not widely prioritized prior to the emergence of voice over Internet protocol technology. VoIP has advanced UC as a central concept for many mainstream businesses seeking to save money and increase flexibility in their communications network.
The Origins of UC
The concept of UC can be traced back to the 1980s, when businesses sought to improve communication between mobile employees in the field in an era before cell phones and personal computers were mainstream. As the emerging technologies of email and voicemail took hold, voicemail pioneer Gordon Matthews created an “email reader” onto his company’s existing voicemail system in 1985. This primitive device combined two forms of communications in a single platform, and the era of unified communications had begun.
The Modern Era
By the 1990s, big league companies such as AT&T and Microsoft were working to integrate not just voicemail and email, but business desktops, PCS and cellular phone technology. New investment bred new innovations, and in 1999, the release of the RIM Blackberry signaled the beginning of a new era. This “portable email reader”, as it was marketed, led the mobile revolution into the 21st century. But it was the arrival of voice over Internet protocol — or VoIP — technology that cemented UC as a concept that redefined business communication.
VoIP and UC
Although VoIP, or Internet telephony, had been under experimentation since the early 1990s, early versions operated on modem-based software that resulted in unreliable connections and notoriously poor call quality. As bandwith and Internet speeds improved, VoIP improved with it, and in 2004, Skype familiarized much of mainstream America with VoIP technology. This also signaled a watershed moment for business UC. The service enabled users to communicate with voice, video and messaging on the same platform over the Internet — the backbone of the UC concept.
The VoIP function known as unified messaging further bolsters business UC by providing variable access to voicemail, email, and fax communications through either phone or website access. This allows voice messages to be read over email, emails to be heard over the phone, and messages of all varieties to be forwarded to a fax machine.
VoIP Features for Business UC
VoIP technology also provides a range of other features that strengthen UC for business communications. Conference calling, for example, allows a single caller to speak with multiple parties at the same time. Find me/follow me lets mobile workers have calls forwarded to them from essentially anywhere. If the user doesn’t want to deal with forwarding, dual ringing places call to multiple phones simultaneously.
VoIP as the backbone of a UC strategy saves businesses both time and money by incorporating multiple features across multiple forms of communication. Using the Internet as the delivery method — as opposed to expensive and complicated traditional telephone hardware and lines — VoIP technology dramatically decreases the need for IT staffing, and updates are received through software, instead of with the installation of new hardware. Consolidation is the key to any UC strategy, and VoIP technology has the ability to channel several communication platforms through the same device at the same time. Although VoIP wasn’t designed as a UC solution, it has become one none the less.