A new round of competition has ignited a field that many considered all but dead just last year.

Microsoft’s extension of Skype communications into the enterprise, replacing the Lync brand, and Cisco’s formal unveiling of Spark put unified communications (UC) back in the spotlight.

Unify — the former Siemens Enterprise Communications — scrambled this week to get attention, too. It reaffirmed its commitment to building a business communications and collaboration platform that needs only web browsers. By adding features to its collaboration platform called Circuit, it hopes it attain at least the perception of parity in this crowded field.

Taking a Bigger SIP

Most importantly, Circuit will support businesses’ existing Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) voice platforms — as Unify claims, “any” SIP protocol.

If this is accurate, then it is significant for enterprises already using SIP trunking services — such as Corvisa, Voxeo, 8x8 and, incidentally, Unify itself — for their customer call centers. It means they can either now or in the near future extend those same platforms into browser-based (WebRTC) phone calls and browser-based conferencing with Unify Circuit.

A feature called Universal Telephony Connector will make that phone call integration feasible. This way, employees will be able to make phone calls from their browsers.

Translated into English, here’s what this means: If your business has a customer call center, there’s a very good chance you already subscribe to a service that links your computer network to the telephone network. Maybe you’ve never heard of the companies that provide that services. But that’s not through any fault of their own — tech blogs rarely cover them.

Adding support for existing SIP services brings Circuit toe-to-toe with the new conferencing platforms from the vendors we’ve all heard of.

Document Exchange

In addition, Unify made some important business deals that will help Circuit achieve the all-important collaboration value-add.

First, a deal with a firm called Open-Xchange will enable Circuit users to exchange Microsoft Office documents with one another and edit them from within the browser. Open-Xchange already has an established office productivity system called OX App Suite. It resells it to providers such as Unify, which rebrand it for service to end users.

This means Unify doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to meet Microsoft’s and Cisco’s raised bet.

Conceivably, anyone who has a modern browser that supports WebRTC — for example, on an iPad or smartphone — can edit Word and Excel documents using tools better suited for those devices than, say, a shrunken version of Word or Excel 2013 on Windows.

But Unify may have just seen that bet, and raised them a notch or two.

On Tuesday, Unify and file sharing provider Box formalized an integration deal begun in February. It enables those same users sharing documents with the rebranded OX suite to store them securely in Box’s cloud, and then to access them from just about anywhere.

The Re-Re-Rebirth of UC

Unified Communications is no longer about the long-sought convergence between the PC and the telephone, especially now that folks have enough functionality on their phones without their PCs getting in the way.

UC is an effort to move business communications onto x86-based (PC-like) servers, where it’s less expensive to manage and maintain.

Technology firms have tried to accomplish this goal since the turn of the century.

What makes this goal seem achievable at last, even though it’s relatively late in the game, is the rise of cloud platforms. Cloud enables high-volume workloads to be moved almost instantaneously, onto cheaper infrastructure that may be partly or completely off-premise.

But for communications tools to be competitive, their vendors need some kind of competitive advantage. This is where the collaboration part comes into play — document sharing, collaborative editing, previewing of presentations.

Ovum principal analyst Brian Riggs told CMSWire he believes Unify Circuit and Cisco Spark are in states of "considerable flux," as their respective manufacturers scramble to develop them into mature commercial offerings. He explained:

For the next year or more we’re going to see them both undergo a lot of change, adding features that help them compare better with more established team collaboration services that have been on the market longer. And we’ll see Cisco and Unify evolve the way they’re brought to market, introducing and changing the pricing plan, integrating them more closely with other products in their respective portfolios, and finding the best way business partners can be involved in the Circuit and Spark sales process."

That evolutionary process will probably mean both these companies, and Microsoft, will spend some effort redefining what "collaborate" means, centering their definitions around their respective products.

For now, Unify's differentiated message looks something like this: Build onto the technologies you already have, rather than replace them to better align with some other vendor's vision of collaboration.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by PhotoAtelier.