VoiceCon shows gap between vendor, user concerns  "Unified communications and internal process change will provide a sustainable competitive advantage," Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers told 1,500 participants at VoiceCon Spring 2006, held March 6-9 in Orlando, Florida. But the power of new communications technology can’t be unleashed unless you "change the underlying working processes," he said. "And such change takes three to five years." His message to IT and telecom decision makers: don’t delay. "By the time your business leaders want to make these changes, you must be already there" in terms of infrastructure. A Common MessageOther leading vendors had the same message, and each gave it a distinctive twist.  "The real value is how it will change the business," said Avaya Inc. CEO Don Peterson. "What is new is for a machine to interface intelligently with a person." Gurdeep Pall, Microsoft Corp.’s VP for real-time communications, said that "VoIP has missed the point" as vendors "try to match yesterday’s functions." Today, "convergence has moved into the applications layer….The focus has shifted to group productivity." Many slick demos showcased the interaction of availability indicators ("presence"), click-and-drag conferencing, instant messaging, video, database search, and integration of documents into voice and video calling. Among the many product announcements at VoiceCon, two in particular indicated shifts in the positioning of real-time technology vendors. Cisco’s UpsurgeCisco used the VoiceCon conference to launch its Unified Communications platform, which unifies voice, data, and video products together with presence and database access. The platform includes a new variant of CallManager, version 5.0, which embraces Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and offers a Linux alternative to CallManager’s previous Windows operating system.  (The new platform is not yet available to users of the Windows version of CallManager, although Cisco plans to ultimately unify the two product lines.) These features are not new. Indeed, Cisco has trailed other vendors in deploying Linux and SIP. But with this new platform, Cisco is playing catch-up in most convincing fashion, showing commitment to and momentum in its product development. Moreover, Cisco has developed the PBX industry’s most effective marketing and public relations, illustrated by the army of several hundred representatives that it brought to VoiceCon. And it has market momentum. Analyst Allan Sulkin estimates its US PBX market share to have soared from 13% in 2004 to 20% last year. (Cisco claims to have already won market leadership.) The Shadow of MicrosoftVoiceCon also saw announcements from Cisco, Avaya, and Mitel Networks Corp. of their plans to integrate Microsoft’s real-time communications products – Live Communications Server and Office Communicator – into their voice technology systems. NEC Corp. and Genesys have made similar announcements; Siemens AG and Nortel Networks have carried out this integration already.  Indeed, it is Microsoft whose integrated platform has so far won the widest adoption, outstripping early offerings by Siemens, Nortel, and other PBX makers. Vendors often assure us that the PBX is now essentially a software product, and that its future lies in new-age real-time communications. Who then is better placed to dominate this market than the world-leading enterprise software vendors, Microsoft and IBM Corp.? Microsoft’s Eric Swift suggested as much in a VoiceCon panel by referring to an April 2005 Gartner Inc. study that viewed the IP-PBX as an "architectural dead end." In Swift’s view, "better to utilize Internet-based opportunities rather than to apply IP technology to the digital PBX model." While insisting that Microsoft is "not building a PBX," Swift affirmed that his company is addressing a large part of PBX functionality. Addressing the same session, IBM’s Brian Garr denied that his company is a direct competitor of IP-PBX makers. Yet he is program director of IBM’s speech recognition division, which has won a significant slice of a software market where no PBX vendor is playing a major role. Leaders of two traditional PBX vendors told me they doubt that their companies can ever match Cisco’s formidable marketing-sales operation. Both said that Cisco will meet its match when it tangles with enterprise software vendors like Microsoft. "Who is the corporate executive’s trusted technology advisor?" asked one of these leaders. "It used to be the telco. Now, often, it’s Cisco – and who else? IBM, Microsoft, HP – Cisco now bumps into them, and that’s another whole dimension." Product UniformityA third trend evident at VoiceCon 2006 is that rival IP-PBXs are more and more similar in functionality. This was apparent in Allan Sulkin’s report on the VoiceCon RFP exercise, in which nine leading vendors responded to a detailed and searching list of requirements for a hypothetical system embracing two sites and 1,200 extensions.  Sulkin’s report showed that with minor exceptions, all vendors fully met his requirements, and the differences between their products would not significantly affect user experience. "The feature gap is shrinking," Sulkin commented. "We’re heading back to the late-1990s, when every major vendor had a similar product," said Alex Pierson, a Nortel general manager and VP. "Technology differences have a short shelf life. And most manufacturers are using third-party developers like Microsoft extensively." DifferentiationWhat basis is there beyond price to differentiate among the IP-PBX vendors? Certainly they differ sharply in the migration paths they offer from legacy technology. Another central issue is their capacity – or that of their distributor – to develop an effective partnership with the customer. Nortel’s Pierson suggests that user organizations give weight to factors such as these:  Integration: How well do their applications integrate into your communications environment as a whole? Look and feel: Styling and variety of phones; usability of graphical interfaces; softphone effectiveness. Feature flow: Are there features that are tailored to your industry? Adaptability: Will the communication system interface well with your PDAs and other mobile devices? Security: Are the security features comprehensive and easy to manage? Simplicity: Is the vendor easy to do business with?Openness: Ability to interwork with third-party software and devices can bring major cost savings. Newton’s LawThe promise of "intelligent" or "unified" communications does not yet figure among the key product differentiators, partly because all vendors offer – or will soon offer – a similar set of features, and partly because this concept has still not emerged as a central customer concern.  It is not yet clear how presence-enabled communications will affect business practices. Cisco’s Chambers sees them as a central factor in productivity growth for the society as a whole. Don Peterson of Avaya expressed a darker vision. "We do not believe that VoIP is a cost reduction case," he said. Rather, we face a "complexity challenge." There are more and more ways to reach every employee – more and more devices. Users are up against Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics, Peterson said: "Complexity never turns back." Newton’s second law refers to the fact that in terms of energy, the universe runs downhill: stars burn out, heat dissipates, and energy’s distribution becomes more random. "More and more options create less and less productivity," said Peterson. "The more choices, the less connectivity." Nuts and BoltsIntelligence and unified communications are not yet high on the list of customer concerns. Indeed, in the very rich array of case studies and user reports presented at VoiceCon, unified communications was hardly ever mentioned.  When one panel of five users was asked about their biggest challenges in the transition to Voice over IP, all cited "closet issues" – battery backup, power supply, power over Ethernet, and air conditioning. This point came up in several other sessions – the first time it has been prominent in the VoiceCon gatherings. This shift in attention reflects the fact that many organizations are moving from the stage of VoIP pilot projects and "greenfield" installations to retrofitting VoIP into existing buildings. Others are just getting started. A seminar entitled "IP Telephony 101," aimed at beginners, was an unexpected success, attracting some 400 participants. Nuts-and-bolts implementation issues were closely examined. There was a new emphasis on disaster recovery, in part the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Two-Level ConferenceVoiceCon Spring 2006 proceeded on two levels: the major IP-PBX vendors directed our attention to the long-range planning, while IT decision makers in user organizations focused on the immediate tasks of technology migration.  The conference and trade show as a whole drew several thousand participants, substantially more than any previous VoiceCon event. VoiceCon’s success reflects both the dynamism of the enterprise communications industry today and the impact of complex and often baffling choices that face organizations that use this technology.