Lippis Report 150: What is the Motivation Behind The Unified Communications Interoperability Forum?

nicklippis.jpgIn mid May of this year HP, Juniper Networks, Microsoft, Logitech / LifeSize and Polycom established a forum to develop a set of interoperability test methodologies and certification programs along with specifications and guidelines that enable mixed vendor Unified Communications UC solutions to work with each other. In short, the UC Interoperability Forum or UCIF is trying to define what it means for multi-vendor UC implementations to interoperate. Since its establishment, membership has grown by thirteen vendors, but blaringly obvious is the omission of Cisco, Avaya, Mitel, ShoreTel and other major UC providers. This begs the question of motivation. Is the UCIF interested in interoperability or changing the market landscape to gain advantage on the established leaders? In this Lippis Report Research Note we explore this question.

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UC interoperability is a very big deal. In fact, back in early April of this year, Zeus Kerravala, SVP of the Yankee Group and I addressed this issue in a Lippis Report podcast titled What is Holding UC Back?. Our answer was lack of interoperability standards and the vendor community’s minimal interest of embracing the ones we have. The UC market has evolved in a peculiar way as it brings together traditional voice communication companies, data networking firms, computing corporations and software concerns. UC is now at the epicenter of video communications, social networking and mobile computing too. UC represents one of the largest cross sections of disparate markets second only to the Internet. It’s here, within this cross section, that UC gains its enormous value.

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UC offers to control real time communications and collaboration. Put another way, all real time business processes will be accessed and control by UC over time. Need to call a colleague? It’s via your UC client. Need to schedule a meeting? It’s via your UC calendar client. Need to video chat with a customer? It’s via your UC video client. Need to bring a group of people together for an emergency meeting? Yes, you guessed it! It is via your UC collaboration client. And common to all those UC clients is presence enabled directory to you, so you can find someone and know if they are available, a communications management system that sets up and tears down connections over intranet, internet and mobile nets. To make UC work ubiquitously, like the public telephone network or the Internet, the vendor community needs a forum or place where it can work out interoperability standards. In addition, for this next evolution in human communications to live up to its promise, it needs motivated vendors to allow their equipment to work together.

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Yes, UC does have key interoperability standards such as SIP or Session Initiation Protocol that offer both end-point and communications manager interoperability, but many vendors add proprietary extensions to SIP reducing its value in multi-vendor networks. So the UCIF is to be applauded for taking the first step in creating an organization among the vendor community to usher in an era of interoperable UC. But the problem with UCIF is which companies established its formation. Clearly suppliers are businesses looking for sustainable competitive advantage that comes with large market share and innovative, albeit proprietary technologies. It’s no surprise then that when UCIF is established by firms with limited UC market share one’s mind jumps to the obvious assumption that the founding members of the UCIF are perhaps more interested in market share re-distribution than interoperability.

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I’ve observed many industry forums and consortiums in the past that used interoperability as a convenient cause to hide a group’s true intentions. For example, Bay Networks, 3Com and IBM established the Network Interoperability Alliance or NIA in May of 1996 to foster interoperability between Local Area Network (LAN) switch vendors. NIA had limited success in competing with Cisco’s increasing market share gains of the enterprise router and switch market.

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UCIF feels a lot like NIA to me. The shear fact that it’s mission statement, board and legal structure was done without any of the UC market leaders input and participation is unfortunate, as it has alienated them. It’s also unfortunate that Polycom and LifeSize are founding UCIF partners, but Cisco/Tandberg is not involved as this has a hint of Polycom/LifeSize fear of Cisco breaking away with the Telepresence market; UCIF seems like a way of mitigating this threat. The timing is very close with Cisco closing the Tandberg acquisition in April and UCIF being launched in May.

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If UCIF is not able to entice and recruit Cisco, Avaya, Mitel, and ShoreTel et al in a meaningful and authoritative way, then its fate may very well be the same as NIA. What the industry does need is true interoperability standards so that a Cisco, Avaya, Microsoft, Siemens, HP et al UC implementations are able to work with each other in the same way that multi-vendor email systems work with each other. But without full industry participation, it seems that UCIF may be doomed and not able to deliver on its promise of interoperability. For UCIF to be meaningful it needs the UC market leaders full participation as well as Enterprise IT architects and planners plus service providers too, for without them, UCIF is NIA.

6 Debates over Lippis Report 150: What is the Motivation Behind The Unified Communications Interoperability Forum?

  1. Nick Lippis said:

    My take on the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum http://bit.ly/bosgG9

  2. EMW said:

    RT @NickLippis: My take on the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum http://bit.ly/bosgG9

  3. Dan Miller said:

    Nick:
    I think your analysis is totally correct. Without the market leaders, meetings of this group will ultimately turn into meaningless exercises. We’ll continue to see a number of vendors with their own line of “unified communications” solutions. They will be proprietary but “open” to interoperating with others on a case-by-case (or perhaps implementation by implementation basis. It strikes me that there are enough standards in addition to SIP – I’m thinking HTTP, XML – coupled with gateways of sorts that lack of a “true” interoperability forum is not the hold-up.

  4. Nick Lippis said:

    Lippis Report 150: What is the Motivation Behind The Unified Communications Interoperability Forum? http://bit.ly/bgzlr9

  5. Todd Smith said:

    The Motivation Behind The #UnifiedCommunications Interoperability Forum http://bit.ly/bgzlr9 via @NickLippis < good video, Nick #ucoms

  6. Doug Spencer said:

    One slight deviation from the above comments, as well as the main article, is that sometimes the voice of the smaller players can not be heard above the din of the market leaders. As long as they are making points that are viable, sustainable, and bring new value to the iteroperation of All vendors’ equipment, the new forum will become a good way to gain reputable attention.

    If, however, the long term charter is to just re-distribute the market positions, and the ideas that are put forth are not substantive in relation to the needs of UC interoperability collaboration, this will expose itself and the forum will fade quickly.

    Yet, no matter what is intended or purposed, the market leaders must eventually also join the trendings of the forum, by way of public pressure or by way of independent agreement, or the forum still does not survive.

    The bottom line – The forum must reflect all aspects of interoperability, AND command the attention of Unified Communications industry leaders, AND involve all viable participants to generate long term credibility.

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