Collaboration Vendors Join for Interoperability

A number of unified communications vendors including Microsoft, Polycom and Hewlett-Packard have formed the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum, a group to make sure all the pieces needed for collaboration will work together.

UCIF also includes Juniper and Logitech (now owner of videoconferencing vendor LifeSize) among its founders and had at least 12 other members as of Tuesday, the day before the official launch of the group. Cisco Systems and Avaya, the two biggest players in UC, had been invited but had not joined the organization. The Wednesday announcement was set to come just a month after Cisco completed its acquisition of Tandberg, which significantly expanded the networking giant's share of the enterprise video market.

Unified communications (UC) is the combination of voice, video and text for collaboration among people in one enterprise or among different organizations. The point of a UC system is to be able to smoothly shift from one mode of communication to another and to combine the various modes in one session depending on which tools each participant has.

Because it typically involves a variety of systems, often from different vendors, UC can be hard to pull off in the real world, Polycom co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jeff Rodman said in an interview Tuesday. An additional problem is that there are multiple protocols to choose from in each of these areas and different legitimate ways to implement the same protocol, he said.

UCIF ultimately wants to make most UC products work together smoothly, so users can, for example, easily turn a text-messaging conversation into a desktop videoconference and bring other users with immersive telepresence rooms into that same video session. It will begin identifying the tasks enterprises most want to do with UC and making sure products from UCIF member companies can smoothly carry out those tasks, Rodman said.

Within three years, UCIF will start to provide logos that certify a given product will work with others for a particular type of use, Rodman said. But the group will provide a benefit even before then by establishing interoperability testing sessions. When vendors meet at those sessions, they will be able to establish interoperability one on one more easily than if they had to set up a testing platform on their own, he said.

UCIF won't set standards but will establish "profiles" that describe particular ways of implementing specifications.

"There are a lot of opportunities for different interpretations to not interoperate right out of the box," Rodman said.

"The real vision of this is not the creation of more standards. It's leveraging the standards organizations that are out there to enable the interoperability of UC based on these standards," he said.

Broadcom, Siemens Enterprise Communications, Plantronics and Brocade are other companies that have signed on.

Interoperability has been an ongoing problem in UC, and enterprises want all the major vendors to implement their products so they work together, according to Wainhouse Research analyst Andrew Davis.

"Loud and clear, they are sick of the squabbling," Davis said. The typical result of mismatched products is degraded quality, most of all in video, he said. This often causes disappointment when users attempt videoconferences between two enterprises.

Cloud-based UC products such as Cisco's WebEx get around some interoperability issues by not requiring special hardware on the enterprise's premises, but they are not the solution for everyone.

"There will be many applications where cloud-based is the preferred way to go, but there are going to be many applications where it's unsuitable for regulatory, legal or secretive reasons," Davis said.

A UC interoperability organization without Cisco or Avaya would have some limited benefit to enterprises, Davis said. "If Cisco does join, it will be more useful to more people," he said.

Because information about UCIF was shared under embargo, it was not possible to seek comment from Cisco or Avaya about the group on Tuesday.

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