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Distributors to clear up unified communications confusion

More vendors are turning to distributors for help finding UC solution providers

Unified communications may be a hot market, but there’s still a lot of confusion around vendors, products and strategies.

In fact, there isn’t even a clear definition about what UC is. And, vendors, at least, are cluing into this.

Some UC vendors are turning to distributors to help them find UC VARs, or to train VARs to sell UC. So why are they going this route?

UC is still in its early stages of development and acceptance. But lack of understanding of both the products and the market has slowed its adoption – and its acceptance is going to be heavily influenced by VARs.

Essentially, UC provides an integrated platform for users to access all of their communications tools – e-mail, voicemail, fax and contacts, to name a few – no matter what device they’re using. The big draw is its potential for improved business processes and cost savings.

Many vendors have recognized this market potential – and the confusion that’s holding it back. So they’re looking for key members of the channel to play a role in the development of UC opportunities.

But many VARs are only now just entering this space, moving beyond convergence to unified communications. So there’s a real need for tools and training to be successful.

Distributors have already begun beefing up their offerings around UC. Avnet has been building relationships with Cisco and Juniper. Tech Data is offering solution providers the ability to build, test and operate UC solutions from 3Com, Cisco, Mitel and Nortel. And Ingram Micro is offering up market development specialists to help solution providers find UC opportunities.

According to Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for UC in 2007, the technologies are maturing, but the market is still at an early stage of maturity. There are multiple reasons for this: some new technologies (such as tele-presence) are not fully understood, best practices around UC are not well defined and many products still lack functionality. Many applications are also complex to deploy.

Some vendors, like Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, have a strong portfolio and network of partners. They also have the advantage of being well-known tier-one vendors.

According to Gartner, some vendors offer good solutions, but have a few issues holding them back. Alcatel-Lucent has limited distribution in the North American market. NEC lacks market awareness. Nortel has weakened its positioning with the channel, thanks to its past financial problems. Oracle has a solid vision for UC, but its messaging is somewhat confusing. Siemens needs a channel that can handle its application-oriented product.

Smaller vendors, like Interactive Intelligence, have solid products, but have had a difficult time penetrating the market because they’re competing against all of the above big-name players.

Now it will be up to their strategic alliances, partnerships and distribution channels to alleviate some of that confusion – and perhaps push a few vendors to the forefront of the UC race.