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The Emergence of Unified Communications and Collaboration

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Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the invention of the first practical telephone in 1876. The invention led to the establishment of the earliest telephone companies in the late 19th century. Since those days, the world has seen exponential growth in communications technologies. Here’s a brief tour from the Age of Ma Bell through unified communications to the current era of UCC, including a sampling of collaboration solutions from big names, as well as a few very interesting new players.

The Age of Ma Bell
The traditional telephone network was made up of analog phones, private branch exchanges (PBX), central office (CO) switches, and trunks. It used circuit-switching technologies to establish a voice communication channel end-to-end between two analog telephones. The traditional telephony served us well for more than a century. The emergence of computers and data networks over the last few decades called for an integration of telephony with software applications and databases. However, the closed nature of traditional telephony made integration with the modern computing environment difficult.

A Big Step Toward Collaboration
And then came unified communications (UC). The word unified in unified communications refers to the usage of a common network for different forms of communications. Unified communications essentially unified data, voice, and video communications to take place over the same network infrastructure running the Internet Protocol (IP). Unified communications enabled great efficiencies and left traditional telephony to die a natural death over time.

Where We Are Now
Unified communications and collaboration (UCC) is an evolution of unified communications. It is the combination of communications and collaboration technologies. Not so long ago, enterprise communications was the domain of telephony and network hardware vendors like Cisco and Avaya. At the same time, software companies such Microsoft and IBM lead enterprise collaboration. The distinctions have been blurred with vendors like Cisco moving into collaboration and the likes of Microsoft offering telephony features. Enter the age of UCC.

Here are the biggest players:

Cisco offers a full portfolio of unified communications and collaboration solutions for enterprises. Cisco Unified Communications Manager is at the heart of Cisco collaboration solutions. It is the control platform for voice, video, messaging, mobility, and web conferencing for enterprises.

Cisco Business Edition 6000 is a more affordable collaboration platform for small and mid-size businesses. Cisco Unified Communications Manager and Cisco Business Edition 6000 are both on-premises collaboration solutions. Cisco also offers hybrid services that combine on-premises solutions with cloud-based software offered as a service. Cisco platforms support a range of end-devices from IP phones to software applications.

Cisco Jabber is the all-in-one enterprise collaboration application from Cisco. It is a single software application that integrates audio, video, instant messaging, web conferencing, desktop sharing, and presence. It is available for a range of desktop and mobile operating systems including Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.

Cisco WebEx is a business application for online meetings with audio, video, and desktop sharing. You can use WebEx to conduct online meetings, hold events and webinars, or offer training and even remote tech support. Cisco WebEx is a cloud-based solution offered on a pay-as-you-go model.

Microsoft is probably the largest provider of enterprise collaboration tools. Office 365, SharePoint, and Outlook are some of the most ubiquitous enterprise collaboration applications today. Skype for Business brings unified communications to the mix. A wide user base and the integration of these applications with the Windows operating system gives Microsoft an edge over its competition.

New Players
A large number of startups offering collaboration solutions have risen to fame over the last years. The majority of these solutions are offered on cloud-based subscription models. These companies are typically niche players that target the significant small- and midsize-business market.

Altassian makes Confluence, a tool that resembles Microsoft SharePoint. It is difficult to track changes to documents created by multiple users, distributed by email, but Confluence lets you create documents online and centralize different versions of documents typically spread across multiple individual mailboxes. Everyone can contribute to a document or give feedback with comments. It is easy to track document changes, or to even revert to a previous version of any document. Confluence keeps track of all changes, and nothing is lost, even if you change your mind after committing a document change. To keep things organized, you can create Confluence spaces for every team or project in your organization. You can use Confluence to create product documentation, knowledge bases, Intranets, or something else specific to your organizational needs.

HipChat by Altassian belongs to a breed of modern communication apps that want to make email better. HipChat offers private and group chat, video calling, file sharing, and screen sharing. You can extend the functionality of HipChat with a large number of available integrations. HipChat integrations let you use other business tools and apps with HipChat. At the time this post was written, HipChat integrations were available for Salesforce, Puppet, GitHub, Dropbox, Facebook, Trello, Zendesk, Asana, and many more.

GoToMeeting, developed by Citrix, is a real contender against Cisco’s WebEx. You can use GoToMeeting to organize online meetings that include audio and up to six HD video feeds per session. Meeting participants can share a view of the whole desktop or only a specific application. It is easy to hand over control of the meeting to any attendee. Recordings can easily be shared with anyone at the end of a meeting.

TeamViewer lets you connect to a partner’s computer anywhere in the world. The primary claim to fame for this great tool is that it’s ideal for providing remote tech support.

Join.Me is an extremely easy to use tool for conducting online meetings, with audio and video conferencing and screen sharing.

Let’s face it. We spend an awful lot of time reading work email, thanks to those never-ending cc lists. Slack aims to change that. Slack has the instantaneity of instant messaging and the permanence of email. Slack offers direct messaging as well as open or private channels. You are not notified of every new message in a Slack channel you have joined unless someone explicitly directs a message to you by using @username. This apparently innocuous feature is a time saver as you’re left alone to concentrate on your work until someone really needs you. You can drag any file and drop it straight into Slack to share it with anyone you want. You also can integrate Slack with other file sharing services like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box if that’s what you prefer. Everything stays in sync and easily searchable.

You have to use Slack to absolutely fall in love with it, and getting started is free.

Wrapping it Up
There are many tools that are part of the ever-evolving unified communications and collaboration landscape. There is a growing trend of unified communications and collaboration applications that run anywhere, on any device. While Cisco and Microsoft currently dominate the industry (as hardware, software, and service providers), there are multitudes of new players that are emerging as real competitors as they offer great services and tools. IT pros should seek to expand their UCC knowledge and skills in order to remain professionally competitive in today’s mobile and collaborative work environments.


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