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Apple OS X Yosemite

From later this year Macs running Apple’s updated OSX Yosemite will be able to handle phone and text messages on desktop and laptop computers.

That’s effectively the same functionality unified communications vendors like Cisco have been selling for years.

Traditional unified communications is expensive. At least the kind of UC sold to corporations is. Unified communications often means paying high prices for additional hardware as well as hefty software licence fees.

Apple, Microsoft disrupt unified communications

Microsoft gave the market a shake with Lync, which integrates unified communications into Microsoft Office.

Apple is taking this a step further. All Macs running the new Yosemite operating system will be UC ready. There’s no need for extra hardware: cameras, microphones and speakers are built into every modern Mac.

If your Mac is on the same Wi-Fi network as your iPhone, then incoming calls will show on both screens.

Not real UC? Don’t be daft

Some vendors may argue that unified communications is more than merely linking a PC with a phone. There’s some truth in that argument. Apple’s approach probably won’t suit large organisations.

It’s like those companies who said the iPhone was ‘just a toy’ when it first appeared. We know where that thinking lead.

OS X 10.10 Yosemite brings the most important UC features to everyone other than large organisations, it makes unified communications easy-to-use and gives the technology the Apple seal of approval. That’s important.

Next step, UC apps

Microsoft’s Lync scores with small and medium-sized organisations because it replaces the complexity and expense of old school phone system support. Companies typically pay PBX suppliers hefty maintenance contract fees.

In effect, Microsoft Lync does to the PBX business what Microsoft did to mainframe makers with the personal computer.

Apple’s unified communications push won’t start in earnest until apps appear to take basic iPhone and Mac integration further. Expect to see tools making it easier to link more than two callers into online conferences among the first wave of Apple UC apps.

Viva unified communications disruption

Last year I met Audrey  William, head of research, ICT Practice, Frost & Sullivan Australia & New Zealand who said Lync would disrupt the unifed communications market in 2014. That’s definitely happening.

Now Apple is giving the market another kick.

Microsoft still has a few aces up its sleeve. One sleeper product that is only just catching fire is Lync, a unified communications tool that integrates neatly with established products like Outlook.

When I caught up with Audrey  William, head of research, ICT Practice, Frost & Sullivan Australia & New Zealand earlier this year we discussed the technology’s potential to disrupt traditional telecommunications markets.

Since then the market has marched on. In a look forward to the main trends we’ll see in 2014, William says Microsoft has gained momentum in the last 12 months and has now reached the point where the company challenges traditional UC vendors.

She writes:

Channels  and  customers now regard Microsoft seriously and channels and IT integrators  that used to sell only traditional telephony solutions are now incorporating Microsoft Lync into their product mix. Lync 2013 offers close to  95 percent PBX functionality.

Increasingly, the adoption of Lync is a natural progression  for companies using Active Directory, Sharepoint and Microsoft e-mail. These  companies  are now moving to Lync for IM, presence, collaboration  and  voice.

Frost & Sullivan anticipates that traditional market participants in the unified communications space will increasingly feel the pressure from Microsoft in 2014.

To underline this, Logitech is selling a range of enterprise and business UC hardware products with the Lync brand logo on the box.

There are clear signs unified communications is gathering momentum in New Zealand. It was one of the most discussed topics at this year’s Microsoft TechEd conference and stories about implementations and successes continue to arrive.

And yet Frost & Sullivan’s 2013 research report shows the market for UC products and services declined 4.5 percent in 2012 to a shade under $100 million. The company still forecasts solid growth over the long-term with a year-on-year increase of 6.2 percent between 2012 and 2019.

Last year’s downturn was mainly due to organisations reducing IT spending and deferring investments. Frost & Sullivan says cost and efficiency pressures are driving the  demand  for  hosted  and  cloud  based  solutions, which offer greater flexibility and with minimal maintenance overheads.

Key markets for unified communications

Frost  &  Sullivan says government and the banking, financial services and insurance sector are the key UC markets in New Zealand. Both were cautious rolling out UC during the year.

Two companies dominate the NZ UC market. Cisco and Microsoft account for 40 percent of the total.

Audrey  William, head of research, ICT practice, Frost & Sullivan ANZ says: “Microsoft  Lync  is a disruptive factor in the New Zealand UC market as it gives  Microsoft  the  ability  to  offer  core  functionality  such as IM, presence,  voice and video on a single platform. Lync’s defining feature of serving as a PBX is driving many organisations to test Lync at the time of  their PBX renewal as an option to simplify and cut costs in their UC infrastructure”.

logitech c930e web cam
Logitech Webcam C930e

Two trends mean there’s a good chance you’ll soon be doing a lot more video conferencing. First, New Zealand is getting a fast fibre network. That makes video a more practical proposition.Second, the rise of unified communications. This is where all business communications combine so that everything goes through a single consistent user interface. Among other things, you may see the integration of email, telephone calls, instant messaging and video conferencing. There are popular tools to do this from companies like Cisco and Microsoft.

If you want video conferencing you need a computer along with loudspeakers or headphones to hear incoming messages, a microphone so you can talk back and a camera. Some devices come with all three built-in. For the rest, there’s Logitech, which offers a range of add-ons to make video conferencing and unified communications practical.

Logitech’s Webcam C930e is one of the best add-on video cameras you’ll find. It  mounts on a laptop screen or on a monitor. It can also sit on a shelf or a desk. There are microphones either side of the lens to catch stereo sound. There’s a privacy shutter so you don’t have to worry about being caught unawares.

Installing the C930 is about as simple as these things can ever be. So long as you have a USB 2.0 port and either a PC running an OS later than Windows 7 or a Mac running OS X 10.7 or later, it will automatically find and install drivers. All you need to do is plug the thing in.

The camera comes with Logitech’s own technology that automatically deals with whatever light conditions it finds. It also has autofocus. The result is clear sharp video images at full HD 1080p  resolution. Sound is good too, there’s built-in noise cancelling.

I tried on on a MacBook Air and it immediately presented itself as an alternative to the built-in video camera. The image was crisper and the software did a decent job of adjusting the light conditions – although the built-in camera does that too.

It’s hard to find much wrong with the Webcam C930. My only complaints are minor. The camera only has digital zoom, this is convenient in use but means images can quickly get grainy if you get close to the full 4x zoom. And that privacy shutter easily unclips – read that as ‘it could get lost’.

There are cheaper alternatives to the Logitech Webcam C930e, but at around $170 it’s a quality product that delivers in spades.

Lincoln University
Lincoln University

Lincoln University IT director Stuart Reilly says in 2010 the university’s telephone system was “a traditional Nortel PBX”.

In theory the PBX should have had a few years useful life in it, but Reilly says he was increasingly concerned about the implications of Nortel’s bankruptcy for such a vital piece of equipment. He says: “It was already hard to get upgrades and that worried me.”

At the time he had begun thinking about options, including a move to Lync, Microsoft’s business-class unified communications software. Reilly was considering a pilot project.

That was in September 2010. Then something happened to change those plans: a devastating earthquake hit the city of Christchurch, just 15km from Lincoln.

Lincoln after the earthquake

The earthquake damaged the Lincoln campus, including the building that housed the PBX. But that wasn’t all. For months the region suffered a series of aftershocks – many were serious in their own right.

Reilly says Much of the university, including 600 staff and students had to be rehoused. It’s not a straightforward job, Lincoln’s main campus is a 50ha site and some people had to be housed kilometres away from their usual workplace. He says, servers and the telephone system were all affected by the earthquake, but they were needed more than ever.

600 km of copper

At this point Reilly looked at moving the PBX. He says the cost of a shift would be 75 percent of the price of a new system. The job would involve 600km of copper wire with roughly 1500 points each needing two wires.

At this point he says he decided Lync was better fit as the university moved buildings. .So Reilly promoted his Lync plan to the top of his agenda.

Lincoln already had most of the licenses it needed for a Lync roll-out, but Microsoft discounts academic software, so Lync itself wasn’t going to cost much.

He says: “The biggest cost was buying headsets. Overall moving to Lync cost around half the cost of a traditional system, but that’s not the biggest saving. We found operational savings of around 10 to 15 percent. We saved a lot on national toll calls, but we have extra costs transferring calls to mobiles”.

Virtual telephony

Another advantage was that it doesn’t need specialist dedicated hardware. Reilly says: “We were able to virtualize, there are no physical servers, it acts more like a router.” This was handy, because the after effects of the earthquake meant the virtual servers running Lync were 20km away from the main site, effectively running in a private cloud.

That proved useful on another level. The wave of aftershocks meant frequent power cuts in the city. Reilly says the phone service wasn’t disrupted because it was by now in a 24-7 datacentre with its own back-up power supply.

Reilly says there was also an immediate benefit not having do deal with wiring when people move around – he says people can move a lot in a university – now their phone connection follows them.

A more extreme case is the university’s dairy farm which is just next to the campus. Instead of running copper all the way to the farm, Reilly picked up a non-standard, non-certified $350 piece of wireless gear which connects the farm to the network. He says there’s been no problems with this and it works just fine.

Lincoln’s next project is to use Lync to deliver educational content.