Unified communications (UC) is a collaborative communications environment that includes elements of presence, instant messaging, telephony audio conferencing, web or data collaboration, unified messaging, mobility, and videoconferencing all easily accessible, writes Bryan Thompson, area manager sub-Sahara Africa at Tandberg.

UC provides information workers with the communications tools, applications and capabilities they need within a single user interface.
It is important to understand that UC is a concept.  UC is not a specific product or service.  It integrates a variety of service, video and web applications into a converged communications environment that can span wired and wireless networks.
In a UC-based communications application, users can start with any communications type such as text chat or voice, and then add other communication methods such as video, as needed, seamlessly.
Unified communications capabilities can also be integrated into nearly any business process, enterprise workflow, contact centre design, or situation where human interaction or intervention is required. In this case, a worker processing invoices or other documents, for example, would have instant "click-to-call" access to other workers or managers in the chain to resolve any issues.
By providing access to the right resource at the right time, UC promises to make decision making faster and to help enterprises become more efficient.
Research company Wainhouse Research strongly believes that presence is a fundamental enabler for a Unified Communications system.  Presence gives status information about any of the communications or workflow tools a person may use, along with the person's working context.
For example, telephone status information (on-hook, on a call, on a conference call, etc) adds significant information about how people are working, and complements and enhances a user's presence information based on calendar information, location services, or the computer keyboard's state.
Presence also indicates a contact's media capabilities. For example, different icons on a presence list can indicate whether the person can be reached on a video system, mobile phone, or voice land line.
By knowing the device status and capabilities, people are able to reduce human latency and communicate more effectively. Wainhouse Research expects that presence will become the dial tone of the 21st century because presence allows people to know when someone is available as well as how to best contact them.
UC business drivers
In a recent Wainhouse Research survey, when asked about the top two business drivers behind their unified communications deployment, customers chose productivity and cost reduction overwhelmingly.
The top six benefits that enterprises expect to real from their UC deployments include:
* Reduced delays in decision making and create speedier enterprise workflow.
* Make general communication/transfer of knowledge and information more convenient, effective and affordable, and include a greater number of people in business decisions.
* Empower remote workers (tele-workers, road warriors and workers in small offices/branches) with the same communication opportunities afforded those in the company's main offices.
* Making productivity/time-saving business tools such as video conferencing a reality available to a greater number of people and helping new employees contribute more quickly.  This greatly increases ROI.
* Strengthen the relationship with partners and peers across countries and time zones.
* Make key resources and subject matter more accessible to more people in real time for project or client-related issues, disaster recovery or emergency situations.
In short, customers believe that UC is not about a particular capability or feature. It's about helping employees process work more quickly, easily, and conveniently. It's about making people, and work teams, more productive and accessible-no matter where they're located.
UC is about helping employees spend as much of their time as possible working and producing instead of dealing with the complexities of global communications.
Changing the video conferencing paradigm
Video conferencing is already going through a significant transformation. We have already seen impressive improvements in both price and performance, in the transition from standard definition to high definition, and in the availability of high-speed, low-cost broadband IP networks.
Now the focus is on the integration of video conferencing into a more global UC environment. The presence-based UC interface represents a fundamental shift in the video conferencing user interface by providing a simple click-to-call mechanism for launching point-to-point and multipoint video calls.
This simple approach greatly reduces the complexity and intimidating factors associated with attempting to launch a video call.
The UC interface makes multiple endpoint technologies invisible to the end-user, making it possible to call video conferencing systems or mobile phones easily, without having to know protocol or network intricacies.
Features of unified communications
Presence – the cornerstone of UC. Presence provides a real-time indication of the status, availability and capability (voice and video) of any person or device in the UC system.
Instant messaging (IM) – the ability to send text messages between user devices in real time.
Telephony – voice communications.
Unified messaging – the centralisation of different types of electronic messages (voice mail, fax, email messages, etc) under a single user interface accessible from a variety of devices (PC, telephone, mobile phone, etc).
Audio conferencing – a voice call between three or more participants.
Web/data conferencing – a communication session in which two or more computer users share computer data.
Video conferencing – a voice and video communication session that includes two or more participants.
Mobility – providing UC functionality (presence, IM, conferencing, etc) to mobile workers.
Many of the above elements have been available to enterprises for many years – either individually or as a part of a multi-feature communications application.  UC, however, changes the story in several ways:
* UC consolidates these typically discrete capabilities under a single user interface, maximising both accessibility and usability.
* UC enables the different features and applications to work together to provide greater value and utility. For example, UC allows the presence engine to automatically update a user's telephony availability status to "busy" when they pick up the phone.
* UC can be embedded in other business applications, giving people immediate access to any UC capability from within a known application.