Shoretel: Unified Communications Is Real At Last

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As UC Expo opens in London, John Combs, CEO of Shoretel tells us unified communications is exciting – and we nearly believe him

I arrive for my meeting with John Combs, CEO of Shoretel, at a disadvantage. He’s flanked by colleagues and subordinates, and I’m late – because I went to the wrong hotel first.

I’m clearly lacking in technology. But I also lack commitment. Much as it pains me to say it, I am deeply sceptical about Unified Communications and the people who sell it. By the end of the meeting I’ve changed my opinion … but not by much.

UC ought to be great. It’s offering functions that could make a real difference to my life. But for years, companies have been pitching me with promises which are either the same (“a single inbox”) or incomprehensibly vague (“use presence to manage your interactions”). The marketing spiels have long since blended into one indistinguishable wall of hype, with the result that – it appears – nothing is happening. Nothing at all.

Voicemail is still mostly useless, emails are fiddly, and most of us juggle multiple phones, missing calls on one while we field the others. This week in London, there’s UC Expo, a big unified communication show, and a chance to hear the hype all over again. I decided to get some preparation in, and spoke to the head man at one of the leaders in the field.

Shoretel’s John Combs – a man with one phone number

When we met I had a flash of hope for UC, because of one detail about John Combs: his card.  It had only one phone number. And one email. That sounds like progress at last.

But think how often you see that on any business card, and you realise that UC is still a minority sport.

All that is going to change, of course, Combs says, because Unified Communications is finally shaking off its tech-centric image and giving users what they want. “Unified communications really helps the end users,” he says. “We are no longer in the IP telephony business. It’s about giving the user tools. It’s about reducing the stuff you have to get through.”

Fair enough, but his pitch still sounds exactly like every other UC vendor: “Unified communications provides the customer with a portal which enables them to manage all their communications,” he says, and it can “leverage” contact information from other applications. He also offers visual voicemail and the much-touted single inbox.

The presence pitch is fairly familiar too. When he wants to contact a colleague, he can see if they are on the phone “If he’s on the phone and it’s a yes-or-no question, I can IM him and say ‘John, did the proposal get put out last week or not?'” Shoretel also includes the option for video conferencing, much promoted at the moment as a green option to reduce travel costs.

Helping the CIO tame telecoms

Now’s a good time for Shoretel to be pitching to the CIO of the company, he says, because many of these people have just won a battle with the old telecoms manager, to win control of the phone system. “You’ve been crowned the winnner of the battle between data and voice communications,” he says. “Now you have added the telephony part of the business to your portfolio. So you wake up in a cold sweat, and you realise you have inherited a telephony system you really don’t understand – and you can’t afford to blow it!”

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