The future of unified communications

Thanks to modern solutions to common enterprise problems, cutting-edge business phone systems are almost unidentifiable compared to their past iterations. In just about a decade, cloud computing, smartphones and big data have completely transformed PBX, replacing it with its hosted brethren. Now, hosted PBX, VoIP, SIP trunking and - perhaps most importantly - unified communications as a whole have become the go-to solutions for organizational collaboration.

Gartner described the current landscape of UC in a recent industry report, explaining that it is still an early mainstream solution, due to the lack of maturation in regard to best practices for users, admins and integrators. First, the choice between on-premise and cloud must be made, a decision which completely changes the UC vendor outlook of business leaders. After procurement, it's migration and integration time, which is a delicate process involving the balance of cost-effectiveness and time to deployment.

"With help from IT industry trends, UC will mature rapidly in the next few years."

Consider that procurement journey along with the complexities of modern IT environments, and it becomes clear that Gartner is correct in calling UC an early mainstream market. Everyone is using it because the benefits are well-known, but it'd be foolish to suggest that UC has hit a ceiling. In fact, with help from hosted PBX, Ethernet services, enterprise mobility and other IT industry trends, UC will mature rapidly in the next few years. Let's explore the future of UC.

Right now, the UC market is filled with a plethora of different vendors, hardware solutions and applications. Most resellers work with a variety of manufacturers, suppliers and developers, making that environment even more difficult to navigate. The result is that organizations typically procure one piece of hardware and software from one vendor, and then in a few years, they buy another tool from a different company. It's far too common to walk into an office and see at least five separate brands across data centers and desktops.

All of these various components are making collaboration difficult for employees, which is the complete opposite point of deploying UC solutions. People don't want overly complex systems, and when that's the only choice, productivity levels drop, workflows come to a halt and shadow IT use rises.

The future of UC will be one with single logins for every system, similar tools for employees to use such as apps all developed by the same company and central interfaces for contacts, email, instant messaging, scheduling, screen sharing and project collaboration.

As 2015 progresses, integrated infrastructure will become a more popular trend in enterprise IT. These systems, typically entire racks sold as a single unit, allow organizations to procure one solution for all of their IT problems. Integrated - sometimes called converged - infrastructure is shipped to businesses with all the components of storage, computing and networking pre-installed along with software to support it all.

No matter how UC evolves, it will always be about collaboration.No matter how UC evolves, it will always be about collaboration.

With integrated systems, organizations are essentially deploying platforms for their business. This technology would work perfectly in a UC-focused setting, as vendors and communications providers offer services bundled with the required components down to the software level. This will give IT admins a platform to always add solutions onto, whether it's SIP trunking capabilities or instant messaging tools.

TechTarget explained that this kind of system could work perfectly in the cloud as hosted PBX providers allow organizations to have a single environment for all their developer kits, from voice to video to mobile.

The future of UC is definitely going to be cloud-based and resemble a platform, which leads to the next point.

Hosted PBX and VoIP are already cloud services, and putting UC into a virtual environment is the next logical step. The only problem is that the current UC market doesn't allow for a lot of industry-specific services. Of course, there are call center solutions and different features that support certain verticals, but when procuring a cloud-based UC solution, some IT leaders just slap on every aspect of the service or they only buy VoIP systems. This means organizations are getting the most out of their UC tools.

In the near future, businesses are going to work with partners to have the best UC experience possible. Service providers will first meet the basic needs of a specific company, and then after successful deployments, they'll offer intermediate add​-ons. Some will come bolted on and others will be premier features.

Information Age reported that customization can also influence the development of pricing models that are linked directly to key metrics. For example, the source detailed a health care environment where consultants, doctors, nurses and patients will all have different use cases for phone systems, so there should be multiple plans based on who is leveraging each feature.

Furthermore, the reliance on the cloud means that for UC to remain a viable solution in the future, service providers will need to offer tools and apps that allow IT admins to gain visibility into their networks. As customization becomes important, so will data prioritization, and whether that can be achieved with software or new networks, such as MPLS, is up to IT leaders.

"UC motivated the mobile workforce."

As BYOD becomes more popular and enterprises embrace mobility, more people are taking their smartphones and tablets to the office and using them at home for work purposes. UC capabilities motivated the mobile workforce, as many modern hosted PBX solutions allow employees to answer their work phones, check emails, send instant messages and hear voicemails while away from their desks.

In the future, desktop phones could go extinct as calls are forwarded to smartphones and tablets, and these mobile devices will become the only tool in the office. After all, they do everything in a more compact and portable format. Users will want to have a single interface that seamlessly transitions from other devices and connects to cloud-based applications and hosted data. Systems such as iMessage and Blackberry Messenger were precursors to this revolution, but once those tools are integrated into UC solutions - and many already are - enterprise mobility can expect a second surge of growth.

Ten years ago cloud-based UC seemed like the future. Very few IT professionals imagined cloud computing or hosted PBX, so who knows what the next decade has to offer, but in more relative terms, as 2016 approaches, UC will focus more on simplification, consolidation, customization and mobilization.

Sheldon Smith is a Senior Product Manager at XO Communications, a telecommunication services provider that specializes in nationwide unified communications and cloud services. Sheldon has an extensive background in UC and his position involves overall product ownership of Hosted PBX, SIP, VoIP and Conferencing.