Unified communications, or UC, can mean many different things, depending on where your industry focus happens to be.

In the more collaborative way of viewing unified communications, there's a core set of integrated applications typically built around electronic messaging, inbound fax, and voice messaging from some form of fixed communications. Many of the VoiceCon vendors who showed off more collaboratively focused software would include that core feature set and then add other collaborative applications on top to distinguish their products from the multitude of others on the market.

What the vendors will throw into their collaborative products will of course vary across the vendor landscape. But here's a sampling of what I've seen most recently at VoiceCon.

First, vendors will enhance or integrate their core application offerings such as electronic messaging, fax and voice messaging. Also expect there to be some form of instant messaging (IM). Businesses are starting to learn this can be a very valuable and productive form of communications. It's more direct than email and in some ways not quite as intrusive as a voice call. IM products could be standalone or completely self-contained with more security and more enhanced business controls than current public IM services offer, or else they could be tightly integrated with a broader, UC core applications suite.

On the other hand, sometimes IM offerings are limited to an integration hook into one of the top public IM services. Using a public IM service doesn't allow for as tight an integration and it opens up potential security holes where business use is concerned. Keep in mind this form of IM is supposed to be targeted towards business-specific productivity and not an outlet for employees to communicate with everyone on their personal IM list.

Some UC software has the ability and integration smarts to allow end users to continue using legacy desktop applications such as Microsoft Office. This reduces the end user's learning curve and improves productivity at the same time. Conversely, other UC solutions will provide their own set of custom desktop applications, many of which mimic the functionality of Office. Larger organisations will also have some form of business or operational applications they use on a regular basis. Some UC software will provide various methods for connecting or integrating custom applications into their collaborative suite. How tight that integration is depends on how it's handled architecturally by the UC vendor.

Integrating audio and video into UC software varies widely. The larger UC vendors, Cisco and Microsoft to name a few, have taken the approach of adding appliances or servers. This approach adds layers of extra complexity for organisations that don't have the staff to cope with the additional hardware or whose network can't bear the weight of all the hardware required to support the functional gains. Other vendors, like 3Com, allow end users to directly connect and use simple USB-based hardware at the desktop level to establish ad-hoc and direct video links along with direct audio communications without the need for specialised network- or server-based hardware. This approach is about as plug-and-play as you'll find in the UC arena.

Early UC approaches provided some form of interconnect with an organisation's legacy PBX. The latest products not only continue that practice, but also accommodate newer IP-based telephony and VoIP. Taking the integration of voice communications a step further would include integration of mobile (cellular) devices and their associated communication options into the UC solution.

This is where diverging mindsets exist on the true meaning of UC.

Some think of UC as the simple integration of fixed and mobile communications. This amounts to using the same applications on your mobile devices that are used when you're operating directly on your organisation's on-premises network. Going a step further would allow for the inclusion of additional wireless communications - not just basic Wi-Fi, but also expanding the definition of wireless to include satellite and microwave communication as well.

It all depends on your communications environment and the criticality of maintaining voice communications during periods of crisis. Everyone can recall what happened during 9/11 and during the hurricane crisis along the Gulf coast a few years ago. Traditional land-based voice infrastructure was the first to go, followed shortly by cellular communications when power backup systems finally gave out or their ground facilities were finally compromised.

These days, if we apply lessons learned from those crises, organisations that intend to stay functional both during and after a severe crisis period will want and need various forms of voice communications, and they'll want all of them to integrate with their UC solution so that it all continues to operate in a business-as-usual manner.