Unified communications (UC) is back in the headlines this week, thanks to some significant announcements. Microsoft made some noise with its virtual launch event for Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2. If you find Microsoft's UC products too costly or too complicated to implement, there were two other UC announcements that might help you quickly see the economic benefits of a UC solution.

The UC Service Option from Verizon Business
First, Verizon Business is now offering integration for its conferencing and collaboration services with popular enterprise IM applications, including IBM Lotus Sametime, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005, and Jabber Extensible Communications Platform (Jabber XCP, recently acquired by Cisco). Users of Verizon Business's UC solutions, offered as a hosted service, will be able to initiate meetings from within their IM client.

Meeting invitations can include a link that will both take users to the web conference and dial their phone extension, making signing on to meetings fairly effortless. "What we're invoking is the dial out capability in the bridge to make it easier for a customer to get on a conference call," Bill Versen, director of global unified communications and collaboration at Verizon Business said. "It's a real nice experience to be able to just click on the hypertext link and have your phone ring."

In addition, Verizon Business's conferencing feature includes Web Moderator, giving administrators the ability to manage the call in real time, for instance by muting participants with annoying background noise. It also combines video so you can see who's speaking. As Jill Taylor, manager of conferencing and collaboration services for Verizon Business, said, "With the one-click intuitive meeting experience, and then the ability to actually physically see and manage your call once you're physically in it with Web Moderator—it's just such a super little package of features."

Unison Combines UC with Virtualization—for Free
The other interesting UC announcement came from Unison, makers of Unison Server, a complete, free unified communications system—providing a PBX, email, instant messaging, contacts, and calendaring all in one package. It even includes a client, Unison Desktop, that combines all these features in one interface that runs on Windows or Linux OSs.

Did you catch that word free? You're no doubt wondering how this could be and if this system is truly free. Well, yes and no: It's available in a sponsored version that will display ads to your users. If that doesn't bother you, then you can get the complete package and functionality of this product for free—or you can pay for the ad-free version.

This week, Unison announced the launch of Unison for Parallels Virtuozzo Containers. This solution lets businesses quickly deploy a UC system in Parellels' virtual environment. So, you can potentially get the benefits of virtualization, such as server consolidation, and the productivity benefits of UC, such as enhanced real-time communications. And did you notice you can get it for free?

Unison Server is available as software that runs on a Linux server, but the company has plans to offer a Software as a Service (SaaS) option in the future. And if you've ever tried to decipher the licensing terms for Microsoft Exchange Server, you'll appreciate Unison's straightforward terms for the paid version.

UC in the Current Economy
The one thing all these UC announcements have in common is a focus on the economic benefits of UC solutions. The down economy has caused companies to greatly reduce travel expenses; a UC implementation can give dispersed work groups the ability to effectively collaborate without needing face-to-face meetings.

As Versen said, "The travel costs for those global companies, the multinational companies—they don't want to have those people flying back and forth overseas. So \[the economy is\] definitely accelerating interest in the UC&C \[unified communications and collaboration\] strategy and what pieces they can use right now to reduce their travel costs." However, Versen also suggested that some companies might need to hold off on making any changes in the face of tight budgets.

Where does your company sit with UC? Are you implementing a UC solution currently? Have you had to cut travel expenses or even IT staff? I'd be interested in hearing how your organization is coping with today's economic climate. Leave a comment below to let us know what's on your mind.

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